Summer Newsletter 2009 (v. 10)

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In this edition:

News & Upcoming Events


2009 Course Dates


Special News!


Words from the Daver

We had a beautiful spring here on Orcas Island. It had a slow start, but that actually meant that many of the early bloomers held off until the later plants were blooming. That means we had a period of incredible beauty here at the homestead.

That being said, summer is here and we're ready for it. We've got the spring grafting pretty well squared away. The swimming pond is warming up. And before long we'll be twitching on the ground in the throes of a glorious sugar high thanks to the excellent fruit set we seem to have this year!

With all of this year's horticultural exuberance I've spent a lot of time thinking about how so many of us permaculturists are "plant nerds" (or more properly, horticultural enthusiasts). Many of us get more excited about nut pines than we do about our own birthdays! However, what about all the folks out there who are dying to know more about the horticulture of useful plants, but do not know where to begin? I wanted to use this opportunity to come to the rescue of the reluctant horticulturists with more ambition than knowledge!

Let the plant geekery begin!

So where does one start? There are a lot of plants out there and so many different facets to learn about from fruit trees, to native species, to ornamentals, etc. I would break down the explorations of the plant world to three different stages: identification, connection, and acquisition.

Plant ID in actionLearning to identify plants can be fairly daunting given that there are thousands of species out there. Luckily, there are a couple ways to go about it.

The most of us from the Western world approach plant identification is through science. How many petals do the flowers have? What does the bark look like? Are the leaves palmate or pinnate? While quite accurate, learning plants the scientific way takes quite a bit of dedication and studying. You will have to become familiar with dichotomous keys, get into field guides, and develop a whole new vocabulary. If you are shooting for accuracy this is an excellent way to approach it.

The other way to learn plants is to begin to identify them by gesture. Instead of looking at all the small parts and using them to identify the whole, one would take in the whole and connect it to other known plants in their head. This is likely how many people learned plants before the advent of modern science. They certainly weren't exclusively using the scientific method. This technique requires spending a lot of time with the plants, observing them and interacting with them. Eventually, new plants begin to appear similar to some of the plants you've come to know. Often this technique will allow you to identify plants to the level of family, but not necessarily species.

It seems to me that using both approaches is the way to go. There is no substitute for spending time with plants and developing an instinctual familiarity. However, there is also no way to make fine distinctions between species without knowing about fleshy peduncles and flower petal arrangement.

There is a book that has become quite popular recently that I would like to recommend here. It is called Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel. This will help beginner and intermediate plant identifiers to recognize plants by looking at common patterns. In other words, this relies upon both science and intuition.

A good way to start practicing your identification skills is to begin with native and naturalized plants in your area. Pick up a good field guide and go for a walk in the park. Try to identify everything you find as best you can. Invite along a friend so you can bounce ideas off of each other. It should be fun!

Once you have some basic identification skills and you are familiar with the botanical terminology you can begin trying to connect to others with similar plant interests. There are enthusiasts out there for every kind of plant you can imagine. Finding them can be a bit tricky, but the Internet has made that a bit easier.

There are two great organizations for folks with an interest in useful plants, edible landscaping, and fruit:



I really want to encourage folks to take advantage of these two organizations. I began putting out feelers this spring and it opened up a variety of different plant-related avenues for me to explore. I also met other enthusiasts with whom I could exchange notes.

Doug mentoring a group on plant careA major benefit of joining these organizations is making contact with old timers who have tons of knowledge that would benefit a permaculturist. There are lots of elders out there who have been doing amazing horticultural projects in their backyards for years. However, they can be hard to find. By joining NAFEX or CRFG, you may find a mentor in your area.

Even without a membership to one of these organizations I encourage everyone to seek out the other plant enthusiasts in your community. They are often there, but overlooked. We won't always have these knowledgeable elders around so we should seek out the information they have to pass on while we can.

Once you become part of a "plant nut community" you will doubtless start to be interested in growing some of these plants yourself. In fact, you may find that you want to try some rare oddities in your permaculture landscape, but you don't have any idea where to find them. At that point actually acquiring some of the weird stuff becomes your next challenge.

For starters, it makes sense to put out your feelers in your plant communities. You can acquire cuttings, seeds, scionwood, or offshoots for many plants from other enthusiasts who are happy to encourage a fellow plant freak. You can offer money or, once you have a few oddities of your own, trades. This spring I managed to acquire rare hardy gingers and palms through a Northwest Palm enthusiast website (the Cloudforest Café). Talking to the fellow on the phone about various plants was exciting too, so I made a great connection.

Another great place to start, the Internet provides a good avenue for sourcing plant material. I often use Google by searching for the plant's latin name. This will often produce a wide variety of hits, some of them likely to be nursery or seed sources. It often works better to use the latin name for your searches than the common name as there is plenty of confusion around common names varying by region. As you continue searching, you will probably notice that certain nurseries appear repeatedly. Those are run by your fellow weird plant enthusiasts. Bookmark them! Here is a good list of nurseries with websites to check when you're looking for permaculture plants:


Skill Builders Exploring Nursery offeringsFinally, if there are plants you want, but absolutely cannot find anywhere you can consider going to their place of origin and importing their plant material. There are a significant number of hurdles to doing this including phyto-sanitary documentation, quarantine, and paperwork. However, if you had a group of friends who were also plant enthusiasts you might be able to share costs and workload in order to bring some of this valuable plant material into the country.

It is also possible to connect with a nursery if you are going to become a "plant explorer". They may already have the documentation in place to import plants. It is possible to fetch plants under the umbrella of a reputable nursery. Often this would result in sharing the plant material with the nursery in question, which seems quite fair.

Hopefully, this gives folks an idea of the essentials of being a plant nerd: identification, connection, and acquisition. Choosing plants as a passion opens up a rich and rewarding world. Ironically, that world is often right in front of everyone (front yards, parks, parking strips, etc.), but it only becomes legible to the plant nerd. Every time you learn about a new plant your permaculture palette gains more colors. Those who actually get to the point of searching out plants will likely be in for some incredible adventures as well. All of the plant knowledge one gains will be paired with knowledge of ecology as all these plants connect to each other in unique ways. Understanding plants leads to understanding ecology which leads to permaculture designs that better reflect Nature. As Albert Einstein said, "Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better."



Pilgrimage to Makawao, return to the source by John Valenzuela, April 2009

There are particular fruiting trees that are renowned for their, size, beauty, productivity, and quality of fruit or perhaps the rarity of the species in that particular part of the world. The original 'Makawao' green sapote tree, discovered on the island of Maui, is one such tree. I had the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the famed 'Makawao' tree in the spring of 2009.

See Side Note Below - 'Sapote: soft and sweet'

'Makawao' green sapote- No Ka 'Oi (the best) I had originally heard of the 'Makawao' tree from my colleague Douglas Bullock (Orcas Island, WA), who claimed it was the best green sapote variety known. He related how the tree was discovered near the town of Makawao, Maui (elevation 1500ft) by Samuel Bullock, Douglas' younger brother, in the late 1970's. During this time the brothers were involved with a non-profit organization, the Windseed Foundation, promoting permaculture and fruit tree planting on Maui. Once Douglas identified the tree as the green sapote (Pouteria virides), they distributed the high quality fruit, seeds and scion-wood throughout Maui, the Hawaiian Islands, Australia, Malaysia, and Spain. There is often genetic variability in open pollinated seedlings, thus a seedling may not be as good as the mother. There is also a chance that a seedling may even be better than the mother. But if an exact replica of a particularly good fruit variety is desired, vegetative propagation, such as rooted cuttings, or grafting of scion-wood onto seedling rootstocks, is the standard method. 'Makawao' has become is the most popular of the very few named varieties of green sapote available in the nursery trade in Hawai'i, and California.

Around the year 2000, nearly 25 years after being discovered by the Bullocks, I was asked by master plant propagator David Frenz to obtain scion-wood from the famed 'Makawao' green sapote tree, near where I was living in Maui. I was honored to be asked to do the job of preparing, and collecting the shoots for propagation in his nursery 'Birds and Buds' in Hilo, Hawai'i. I occasionally had a chance to taste this choice variety, when the fruits would appear briefly in the local natural food store in Makawao. David put me in touch with the current owner of the property where the tree was located, and I was graciously given permission to visit.

Collecting scion-wood from the 'Makawao' tree
Collection of dormant scion-wood from deciduous fruit trees is fairly straightforward: just snip off the tips of branches of desirable varieties when the tree is leafless, usually in late December. With tropical evergreen trees the timing is more precise- grafting fully dormant tropical scion-wood may result in a very long wait for bud break, and the beginning of active growth. There is the need to ensure the buds are swelling before grafting onto a rootstock, rather than fully dormant. But once shoots have actually emerged from the buds on the scion, it is too late to graft. Dormant buds on evergreen scions are prepared by removing the leaves, and sometimes pinching out the terminal bud. Then the buds above each leaf stem will begin to swell in a week or two, only then being most suitable for propagation by cleft or approach grafting onto seedling rootstocks of green sapote, or the closely related mamey sapote. It took a few visits for me to prepare the scion-wood properly, and several packages of scions were sent to the Big Island.

David was successful in propagating 'Makawao' from the scions I sent. He was quite generous in rewarding my efforts by sending me a few ripe durians grown on the Big Island- a very fragrant, and delicious gift. He also sent along a few fruit trees (lychee, grafted eggfruit, and grafted white sapote) for me to give to the 'Makawao' tree owners.

Return to the Islands
After being away for more than six years, I was invited to return to Maui in the spring of 2009 to be part of a teaching team for a couple of workshops at Hale Akua Farm and Gardens. I was asked by Penny Livingston of the Regenerative Design Institute (Bolinas, CA) to join her, and Douglas Bullock, to teach an Introduction to Permaculture weekend and a five day 'Food Forestry Agroforestry' workshop in Maui. Being encouraged by those who push the limits of fruit growing, my fellow fruit fanatic friends from the California Rare Fruit Growers and the Cloudforest Cafe discussion group, I was determined to also revisit the 'Makawao' Green Sapote tree to taste the fruit and collect seed to bring back to California.

Spring in Hawai'i is not the greatest time of the year for finding local fruits. It is known as kind of a hunger gap. But there is a triad of fruits that can always be harvested year-round: Papaya, Banana, and Coconut. With careful selection of varieties, add to the list of nearly continuous bearing: Citrus and Avocados. The winter had brought much rain and violent winds for months, many trees had obviously been damaged and were just starting to regroup and flower.

In anticipation of my trip to Maui, I had referred to Ken Love's wonderful 'Hawaiian Seasonal Fruit Guides for Chefs' with attention to his poster entitled 'Spring Fruit from the Big Island'. It lists 25 species of tropical fruits, some of which I did taste while on the island: jewel like Surinam Cherry (Eugenia unflora) at the farm we were staying, sub-tropical Loquats (Eriobotyra japonica) from a road side tree in up-country Ulupalakua, green skinned Star Apple (Chrysophyllum caimito) and huge, sweet, up-country Cherimoya (Annona cherimola) at the local natural food store.

The seasonal fruit poster also listed Rose apple (Syzygium jambos), which has a wonderful perfumed rose taste and light crispy texture, one of my favorites. Alas, I was not able to find any, as the wild trees found on the wet side of the island have had heavy damage from not only the severe winter wind and rain, but also devastated by a fungus causing rust (Puccinia psidii), especially along Huelo area of the Hana Highway, with many acres of trees near death.

The workshops were a great success with many participants, from near and far: community neighbors, neighbor islanders, Californians, and folks from Maui Community College, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and local Permaculture, Sustainability and Organic Agriculture groups. Part of the courses included a 'hands-on' project, with many trees planted onsite, creating a multi-function food forest. We planted Hawaiian natives, Polynesian 'canoe plants', and other trees from around the world that will produce fruits, fertility, fibers, flowers, fragrance, medicinal herbs, perennial vegetables, timber and more. These were all planted into a formerly unproductive lawn area with sheet mulch, creating a perennial polyculture of multi-purpose plants. Mid-course, we went 'holo holo' on a field trip over to the east side of the island by way of the spectacular Hana Highway, visiting the Keanae Arboretum, and in Kipahulu- swimming in waterfalls, and touring some fantastic agroforestry farms: Lau Lima Farm, fruit enthusiast Stephan Reeve's home orchard, and Whispering Winds Bamboo Nursery's extensive fruit, timber and bamboo plantings.

My Last day
The day before I had to return home to California, I met with my good permaculture friend Richard Kahle who would join me on the venture to Makawao. He is an experienced farmer and orchardist who had just received an order of fruit trees from David Frenz, fresh off the boat from the Big Island. The twenty or so selected varieties of fruit trees included various dwarf avocados and mangos, some rain tolerant mango relatives, acai palms, durian, keladang, and various other oddities, including a couple green sapotes- but not of the 'Makawao' variety. They were instead a variety named 'Frankie's', a selection of nurseryman extraordinaire Frank Sekiya of 'Frankie's Nursery', Waimanalo. It is claimed that in side-by-side taste test comparisons, 'Frankie's' is preferred by some over the 'Makawao'. Better than 'Makawao'? Wow, that must be really good. The fruit of 'Frankie's' has a darker olive green/orange color when mature, and has a the more pointed shape of a spinning top, so may not be considered as attractive as the large, round, and brightly colored 'Makawao'. It has been noticed that 'Frankie's' may also be more vulnerable to fruit fly damage.

Visiting The Tree
The 'Makawao' tree was in the yard of an old ranch home just outside of town, surrounded by lush green pastures. A place of perpetual rainbows, it sits in the play of mist and sun, 'Makawao' means 'forest beginning' referring to the edge effect of a transition between the drier grasslands giving way to rainforest levels of precipitation. The place is an old ranching town, known to be tough and wild, due to the reputation of the paniolos (cowboys) who frequented the saloons there. Like most small towns in the islands, locals know the locals, and outsiders have to earn trust.

After meeting a skeptical eye caused by our announced visit, we identified ourselves by dropping some names of common friends, then the owners remembered me from years ago preparing scion for David Frenz. While 'talking story', the owners shared some history of the place, telling us that the grand green sapote, and other large fruit trees in the yard had been planted by a local Portuguese family perhaps more than half a century ago. The tree was beautiful- it was much larger than I remembered: some 45 ft tall 30 ft wide, with a trunk 2.5ft in diameter. With glossy leaves and so many lovely fruits adorning the branches- it reminded me of some kind of a tropical Christmas tree. The fruits were just beginning to drop ripe. They were quite impressive, baseball to softball size, nearly spherical, with an olive green color maturing to a strikingly beautiful deep pumpkin orange color. The flavor was fantastic, like a juicy orange sweet potato/avocado with a little maple syrup.

The fruits we were picking were only in the bottom few feet of the tree's lowest branches (starting at 10ft high) as the upper parts could only be picked with ladders, ropes or extension poles. We found the owner's dog loved to chase fruits, which had gotten away from us as we knocked them down, gnawing on the hard flesh and the one or two seeds inside. The ground beneath the tree was paved with the dark shiny seeds of many long past fruits. Many had cracked shells, beginning to sprout in the moist soil.

Makawao Green SapotesI took many photos while on tour in Maui, and looked forward to capturing images of the famed 'Makawao' tree, and it's fruit. With great disappointment, while trying to ready my digital camera to take pictures of the tree, I realized that my batteries were dead, with no backup. Later friends took a few low-resolution cell phone photos of the glowing fruit, which just remind me of their great beauty.

The fruit trees from David Frenz, which I had given to the owners of the 'Makawao' tree, had been planted just 6 years ago with varied success- the lychee didn't make it, the canistel or eggfruit was just shoulder high and seemed to be struggling, but the white sapote was 20ft tall 30 ft wide and 1ft in diameter, full of flowers and small fruit beginning to enlarge for harvest later in the year, the owners saying they enjoyed the fruit very much.

Bringing it Home
At the agricultural inspection station at the airport, the USDA APHIS officer closely examined my carefully cleaned and labeled seeds which I had collected from across the island of Maui, from the humid jungles of Kipahulu to the road side gardens of arid Lahaina. I had called ahead to the Plant Protection and Quarantine office to ensure a smooth inspection at the airport. While the officials were focused on the essential task of keeping unwanted pests and diseases from crossing state lines, I was reminded of the accidental introduction of the devastating bacteria known as 'Huanglongbing' or 'citrus greening' (Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus) and it's carrier the Asian citrus psyllid, to Florida where they are destroying thousands of citrus trees. The seeds I presented were unusual and little known, even among some of the inspectors. Posted at all the agricultural inspection stations in the airport was another one of Ken Love's wonderful posters: the 'Hawai'i Tropical Fruit Poster', with it's photos of over 150 species of fruit, I was able to point out most of the types of fruit which I had seeds of. This included various fruits, edible flowers, perennial greens and legumes, all of which passed inspection. Saving one last green sapote fruit, I was able to present a perfectly ripe "Makawao' fruit to the inspectors, for their personal approval. After getting my boarding pass, I saw the inspectors sampling the fruit- we all agreed it was 'ono! (delicious).

Backyard discoveries are our heritage.
Venerable old fruit trees, like the tremendous 'Makawao' Green Sapote, with unique, choice, quality fruit, adapted to local growing conditions are to be found growing in gardens and parks, front and backyards everywhere in your area- perhaps even in your own back yard. It is up to all of us to share these local treasures with the community at large through distributing excess fruit, and sharing seeds and scions with others. We can learn to propagate such varieties by grafting and other methods to multiply these unique varieties so they are not lost to development or the ravages of old age. It is also up to us to ensure we are not spreading potentially devastating pests and disease by careful vigilance and cooperating with all quarantines and inspections. Through the identification and distribution of locally adapted varieties of fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs and other useful plants for our home gardens and food forests, we can create a more abundant environment for our friends and families today, and for generations to come.

Be respectful, ask permission, nurture people, plants and animals, provide service, and share the abundance. Food Forests Across America, Food Forests For All!



*John Valenzuela is a horticulturist, consultant, and permaculture educator. Living in Hawai'i for 15 years, he studied and practiced tropical permaculture while teaching throughout the Islands to a wide range of people. He has also been one of the lead teachers of permaculture design courses at the Bullock Family Homestead in Orcas Island Washington for more than 10 years, also having taught in Costa Rica, and throughout urban and rural California. His special interests are home gardens, plant propagation, rare fruit, food forests, agroforestry, ethnobotany, native ecosystems, and education. He is now based in his original home state of California, where he maintains ornamental and edible landscapes and a small nursery, while sharing his passion for plants.

John Valenzuela Permaculture Services
Cornucopia Kitchen Gardens and Food Forests
Consultation, Design, Education, Propagation, Landcare



Sapote: soft & sweet by John Valenzuela, April 2009

There are several different fruits called 'Sapote', a name derived from the Aztec word zapotl meaning 'soft and sweet'. There is a botanical family named Sapotaceae which has several genera with species that are edible and choice, mostly originating in the Americas. Also in this family is the interesting miracle-fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) from Africa, known for its ability to make anything, even lemons, taste sweet. Sapotacea family plants usually have a milky sap, seeds with a dark shiny shell, and often have shiny dark green leaves with fuzzy undersides. Many seedling varieties have elongated fruit, sometimes with a nipple. Selected varieties are chosen for a round shape for easier packing, in addition to selecting for productivity and flavor. There are other unrelated species of fruits that are also called sapote- all are soft and sweet.

Not in the Sapotaceae family:

Some more cold tolerant sapotes from the tropical highlands that are successfully fruiting in California:

On the island of Hawai'i, I had lived and worked in an orchard with 180 varieties of fruit, which had 125 trees of the Pantin and Magaña varieties of mamey sapote (Pouteria sapota). Being familiar with the wonderfully rich sweet potato/avocado taste of the mamey, I would say the green sapote is even better tasting, with a slightly more moist/juicy texture. While the green sapote is similar, even better, in taste to the very tropical mamey sapote, the green sapote prefers to grow 'upcountry', at higher, cooler elevations in the tropics.




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