Robin-Lee

It's up for debate

The Prickly & Pawpaw Patch of Pennypack Park

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Pennypack Park map

Pennypack Park map

The alliteration is back, as is my voracious weight gain.

Now that I’m not breathing through Jell-O and the cool season’s moving in, I thought it’d be good to do some trail running and seed collecting (I grandiosely tell my colleagues I’m “botanizing”) in some of the parks of the Philadelphia environs.

Adjacent to the free parking lot across from Fox Chase Farm and off of Pine Road, there’s a quaint paved trail running along the West side of Pennypack Creek and which apparently runs the nine-mile length of the rising smoke—like sliver slicing through Northeast Philadelphia.

Had I seen this, I wouldn’t have crossed the creek onto the east side and wouldn’t have run into a recreation of Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin and – worst of all – wouldn’t have had my first taste of Passionflower, Pawpaw, and Prickly Ash at an unlikely gem that was the Pennypack Environmental Center.

With the exception of Prickly Ash, which has its own unique appearance, it seems odd that Pawpaw and Passionflower thrive as far north as they do, especially given the latter’s exotic look.

My botanical finds started with a pee, and a pee is incidentally how I happened on this fine Environmental Center.

My botanical finds started with a pee, and a pee is incidentally how I happened on this fine Environmental Center.

As with any plant, I’ve found in my readings and researchings that Passionflower, or Passiflora incarnata, has been used for everything from anti-anxiety and cough medicines to the ever-perplexing treatment for both constipation and diarrhea. While I didn’t have the need to relieve either that day, the Environmental Center’s ranger – I’ll call him Pete, as that’s what he said he was called by his wife at least on Thursdays – shared with me a swelled, papery-skinned Passionflower fruit, inside of which was a gooey mass of seeds held together like frog spawn. The flavor was sweet, but the gelatinous substance was difficult to separate from the seeds. A lot of effort, but a sweet, grapey reward.

Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket

Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in your pocket

The Pawpaw fruit is one of the more unusual berries to see dangling from above, and, while sweet, it has a more custardy, banana-y flavor. In “Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations”, the authors claim that the pawpaw – derived from the Spanish word “papaya” (another flavor of the pawpaw fruit noted by some) – was grown by a number of American Indian tribes and was then later rediscovered by my favorite Philadelphian botanist, John Bartram, who then sent some species to his horticultural pen pal Peter Collinson in Britain.

With all the problems over the years with banana cultivation, it’s surprising that this fruit isn’t more prevalent in the market (maybe due to its short shelf life once off the tree?), but people like Pete are bringing it back – the park ranger’s stand towers over the Environmental Center’s entrance and still has at the time of this posting plenty of berries ready to drop. Even a recent posting claims that Bartrams Gardens has a stand of pawpaws made possible by the Philadelphia Orchard Project and used as an ingredient in an ice cream brand promoted by the Gardens.

The Gardens has also promoted the attempt of Philadelphia Distilling (claiming to be the first craft distillery in the state of Pennsylvania since prohibition) to recreate John Bartram’s Bitters. One of the ingredients of this “cocktail additive” happened to be growing just in back of the Environmental Center. The ranger took a small red seed from a branch of thorny-trunked tree and told me to put it in my mouth, bite down – but not too hard – and not to swallow.

Prickly Ash berries

I’m fairly certain he was a park ranger.

Pricky Ash, or Zanthoxylum americanum, is of the same family as Sichuan pepper. Upon crushing the seed and releasing the hydroxy-alpha sanshool molecules, the tongue experiences paresthesia – another damn good P word – or, in other words, a numbing and tingling sensation. I had my unwitting colleagues try the seeds: one experienced paresthesia but not the changing flavors from spicy to minty to sweet that I had experienced, while the other accidentally swallowed the seed.

Again, herbalists have used the plant’s various parts to quell their farts and for other excretorial purposes, but one I can readily accept is its role in Native American life in alleviating toothaches – the park ranger did, in fact, initially introduce the tree as the “toothache plant”. It’s also a boon for Giant Swallowtail butterflies, which lay their eggs on the plant’s leaves. All the more reason to encourage more plantings.

Prickly Ash: also a great way to keep kids out of your yard.

Prickly Ash: also a great way to keep kids out of your yard.

For those who’d like to attempt propagating Passionflower and Pawpaw by seed as I am, I found the following sites to be helpful so far:

While I’ve not found a trustworthy online guide or text for growing Prickly Ash from seed, Pete suggested a month in cold peat moss storage and then planting in any soil (as it’s a hardy plant that tolerates a range). I’ll trust Pete – his name, after all, does start with a P.

 

My meditations are interrupted only by the faint rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway

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  1. […] shape, viability/longevity, color, and chemistry. Take, for instance, the peppery, mouth-numbing Prickly Ash seed, or the pleasing circular-disc shaped seeds of Malva sylvestris. There are the miniscule seeds of […]


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