Noe Valley Voice October 2003

Florence's Family Album

By Florence Holub

Florence tells us about the plums and the bees, in this essay originally published in the October 1991 issue of the Noe Valley Voice.

When we moved into our brown-shingled house on 21st Street in 1956, there were three productive fruit trees growing in our back yard, which is graced with a southern exposure.

For a while, we had a peach tree near the deck, which produced beautiful pink blossoms and large juicy fruit, but its life span was short, and in only five years it died. Then there was the largest tree, which yielded lush apricots. The fruit had a sweetness that, for us, has never been surpassed.

The apricot tree was once visited by a huge swarm of buzzing bees, as large as a prize-winning watermelon. Since we did not wish to share our garden with stinging things, our son Jan, who was a teenager at the time, took on the task of evicting them.

Armed with a garden hose, he cautiously approached the agitated mass that was clustered around the queen, and gave the bees a blast of cold water. As they plummeted to the ground, he dropped the hose and sped to the house with a trail of bees in hot pursuit. But the bees that had fallen to the ground flew back to their queen. When it was safe enough, Jan returned to give them another water treatment, then dashed once more to the back door. Again and again he doused them in this manner until they were forced to disband. Luckily, because of his sprinting ability, Jan didn't get stung, and we regained our garden.

A few years after the bees, we noticed that a portion of the apricot tree's lower trunk was riddled with tunnels and sawdust. And we soon discovered, in one of its gaps, a formidable little creature standing guard--a brown soldier termite, with a large head and mandibles that looked like horns ready to attack any intruder.

After a decade, the beautiful orange and red apricot tree fell over, no match for those voracious termites.

Of the three original trees, only one is still with us--the plum tree. It also suffered a bug-infested trunk, but it wisely sent out shoots that matured into young trees.

Every spring, this triple-trunked tree is covered with delicate white blossoms, which have been the inspiration for many still-life drawings and watercolor paintings. One spring, the most interesting branch to paint was hanging over the back fence, above the neighbor's yard. I was reaching out to clip it, stretching with all my might, when a hand rose up from the other side of the fence and silently but gently guided the limb to within my reach.

Only recently did I become brave enough to ask our neighbor if it was his helping hand so many years ago. He remembered that it was.

In even earlier days, there were also some hands that helped themselves instead of me. In the summer, as the fruit ripened, our green hill was plagued with young plum-pilferers, from both Noe Valley and the surrounding Mission District. One sunny day as I surveyed our crop, I was surprised to see a hand rising over the fence, reaching for our plums. Without thinking, I grasped the wrist and held it for a minute, then relented and let go. I listened with amusement to the sound of scampering feet racing down the slope.

That happened when the tree and its yield were small, but now both are extremely large, and I often wish those little fruit thieves would return. Friends and relatives are willing to take some of the plums, but we always end up with a surplus.

This variety of plum is the deep-purple Prunas domesticus, which has firm flesh that can be dried, and which is also good for many other purposes--like preserving. It makes excellent red jelly that doesn't require the addition of pectin to make it gel, only sugar. And one year, a bumper crop even induced me to invest in supplies to brew plum wine. (It turned out to be so sweet, however, that the only one who would drink it was the vintner.)

Last year, one of the branches, loaded with fruit, thrust itself out of reach, over our fence and high above our next-door neighbor's yard. The neighbor, Wendy, and I devised a simple method for claiming those plums. I shook the branch on our side of the fence, while she held and manipulated a cardboard box on her side, catching the plums as they fell. This was quick and easy, but to get at the rest of the plums, I still had to climb up the tree with a plastic bucket and pick them individually.

We picked the last of the plums in August, and in September the leaves began changing color, from deep green to bright yellow to rusty brown, and falling to the ground, to nourish the tree in years to come.

There is nothing in our garden that requires so little tending as our plum tree. It survives droughts and freezes, yet gives abundantly. And although I'm getting plum tired of climbing it, that tree has earned my affection and admiration. It has even forced me to learn to make a passable jar of jelly--and it only took 30 years! h