Xanna liked to grow what she liked to eat. Standing in the aisle of Buchholz & Daughters Feed and Seed, looking at the colorful packets of beans and greens and tomatoes and peas, she wanted to grow everything. Lots of everything. One packet in particular caught her eye. It was called Ambrosia cantaloupe.
Every year for Thanksgiving dinner, her grandmother made a dish called ambrosia. It was a salad, but there wasn’t much salad to it. It was a dessert-like concoction made with clementine orange pigs (her grandmother called individual segments of oranges pigs), pineapple, coconut, marshmallows, pecans, and maraschino cherries. It was a tasty treat. Xanna loved cantaloupe, too, so the association with her grandmother’s signature holiday dish made Ambrosia cantaloupe irresistible. She showed the packet along with several others to her mother, and Pernille nodded yes.
Xanna knew a waxing moon was a good time for planting above-ground crops. According to moon-phase gardening tradition, the moon’s gravitational pull worked on land water as well as the water in the ocean. As soon as they got home, she built up 4 round hills of rich soil with a flat top. In each of the four hills, she put 3-4 of the slick, hard, pale, elliptical seeds in a circle, about a foot apart. Xanna buried them a half-inch beneath the soil and tamped them down with the heel of her hand. Then she watered them in and put a little shredded leaf mulch over the top. For good measure, she watered the mulch, too, which settled it down nicely over the mounds to keep it moist.
Then, of course, came the hardest part. Waiting. The good thing about waiting for things to grow is there are stages to look forward to along the way to harvest time. The bad thing is it seems to take forever. The first stage, for Xanna, was staring at bare, empty dirt where the seeds were. This was not a fun stage. But maybe it was a little. The anticipation was exciting. Every day she went over to water the spot and examine it very closely. Sometimes she thought she saw something, but a second look revealed it was only a weed. She picked those out.
She couldn’t see it, but the real first stage had already started, down under the soil. The tough outer shell of the cantaloupe seed, called the seed coat, was soaking up the water Xanna gave it. As it soaked, it softened. As it softened, it swelled, The water woke up the baby plant inside the seed, called the embryo. It contained everything needed to make a big plant: a baby root, called a radicle; a stem, called a hypocotyl; and the first baby leaves, called cotyledons.
While Xanna was staring at what looked like nothing, secretly the tiny radicle (root) stuck itself out of the seed coat, like a little pointy tongue searching for water. It slurped up the delicious soil broth. Then, the hypocotyl (stem) arched itself up toward the surface like a giraffe lifting its neck. At the end of that “neck” were the cotyledons, like the head of the giraffe.
Being such an obsessed observer, it was this first peek of the hypocotyl Xanna saw. It looked like the bend of a thick, green hairpin sticking out of the ground. It had only been eight days since she planted the seeds, but staring at plain dirt day after day made eight days seem like a cruel and unusually long time. She’d started to wonder if a bird or a bug had stolen her seeds, or if the seeds had gone bad. When she saw the green giraffe-necked hypocotyl bowing up through the surface, she did a little hypocotyl dance.
It was not pretty. Xanna was not much of a dancer.
Once she saw the hypocotyl, she was immediately eager for the next phase. She wanted to see that cotyledon. It didn’t take long. The cotyledon of the cantaloupe is a pair of thick, slightly elongated, rounded leaves, opposite each other, and joined together at the top of the hypocotyl. Several of the cotyledons of the other seeds emerged the next day, and the rest followed over the next two days, until the hills were adorned with crowns of fat, round leaf sprouts.
Once this was done, of course, Xanna couldn’t wait for the next stage: true leaves. She saw a bit of a bump at the base of the cotyledons, where they joined at the top of the hypocotyl. Over the next few days, this bump grew and changed, looking like a tight frizzle of leafiness sticking out. Each day it became more leaf-like, unfolding and enlarging, until it was fully opened. Only then could Xanna see what a true cantaloupe leaf looked like; they were completely different from the cotyledons. They were roughly the shape of hearts, with slightly jagged edges.
Now that the mystery of what cantaloupe leaves looked like was solved, Xanna’s next goal was to see the plants vine and blossom. She had other plants growing at the same time, so sometimes a day went by without her checking on the cantaloupes and the time passed more quickly than she realized. Before she knew it, the cantaloupe vines had zoomed along until they were over two feet long.
The next stage was flowering. Cantaloupe flowers are bright yellow and shaped like five-pointed stars. Xanna saw bees moving from flower to flower and did another dance. It was more of a cheer this time: “Yaaaayy . . . BEES!” she yelled, jumping into the air, then looked around to make sure no one had seen. Even though cantaloupe flowers are self-pollinating, they produce better with the help of bees.
The vines got even longer. Soon she saw a fuzzy, round swelling at the base of a flower between the flower and the peduncle. Peduncle (puh DUNK l) is the name for the flower stalk. She liked learning the botanical names for plant parts and peduncle was one of her favorites.
It sounded like onomatopoeia for a falling noise: Larry tripped and peduncled down the stairs.
It surprised her how the baby cantaloupe was so different from any cantaloupe she’d ever seen before. It was slightly elongated and covered all over with silver ‘fur.’ She patted it softly.
“Good cantaloupe,” she told it. “Grow.”
It was an obedient pet. She named it Ambrose, and it did grow. The fur disappeared, but it still lacked the ‘netted’ skin of most ‘lopes. She hoped it was okay.
It took Ambrose weeks to reach full size. It looked exactly like a cantaloupe, netting and all. By then it had several siblings of all sizes, but none as big as Ambrose.
For what seemed like forever, Ambrose just was. It didn’t get any bigger, or any different day after day. How would she know when it was ripe? If she waited too long, the bugs would get it, or a raccoon would eat it, or it would go bad.
That was when she read up on how to tell when a cantaloupe is ready to pick and learned all about the abscission zone. Made from the same word as scissors, abscission means to cut away. The abscission zone is the area where the peduncle attaches to the fruit. When the fruit is ripe, the top layer of cells of the abscission zone becomes weak, and the bottom layer of cells swells up, causing the top cells to break and pop the fruit off.
For cantaloupe, Xanna was supposed to press the cantaloupe skin next to the peduncle. If it started to separate, it was ready to pick.
For three more days, Xanna pressed the cantaloupe just like she’d read about. Each day, the cantaloupe stayed firmly attached to the peduncle. On the third day, she thought she could see a faint separation. She lifted the cantaloupe barely off the ground, and with a crisp tearing sound, it came free in her hand.
Xanna stood in the patch surrounded by vines, held Ambrose in both her hands, brought it to her nose and inhaled. It smelled like fresh straw, but sweet, fruity, and bright.
Cantaloupe looks kind of ugly on the outside, but inside it’s totally different.
If somebody asked me for advice I’d say don’t judge a fruit by its peel.
If they did nobody would ever eat coconut.
Third quarter moon.
Copyright 2015 Daisy Siskin
Read chapter 1 here.
Read chapter 2 here.