Poncirus Flying Dragon with fruits


Frightening, Beautiful, Edible

Right now, my hardy orange tree might look at its finest, standing at the head of my driveway against a pure white, snowy backdrop. An orange tree!? Outdoors with a snowy backdrop?! Okay, in all honesty, it’s a bush, not a tree. But it is an orange plant, and it does survive into Zone 5 outdoors. (Temperatures plummeted to 2° F a week ago, and coldest temperatures typically arrive around the end of this month.)

Botanically, the plant was Poncirus trifoliata. I write “was” because a few years ago, this citrus relative was welcomed closer into the citrus fold, with a new official name, Citrus trifoliata. Not all botanists recognize this closer kinship, and insist on keeping the plant in the Poncirus genus.

The kinship of hardy orange with other citrus is obvious from its glossy, forest green leaves, the sweet (but very slight) aroma of its flowers, and its fruits, which are pale orange. Poncirus Flying Dragon with fruitsThe fruits are edible but I wouldn’t bite into one; the flavor is orangish, but also sour and bitter. Perhaps I’d squeeze the pulp to add a hint of citrus flavor to some other cooked fruit or a baked good. Perhaps not.

What I like best about this plant are its stems, which are most evident now, when bared in winter. Read more

New York Grown Oranges!

Yes, A True Citrus

Oranges? In New York, planted outdoors in the ground? Yes, I have them ripening on the branches now. No matter if they ripen thoroughly or not because, although they are true oranges, delicious flavor  is not one of their assets. It’s still a plant well worth growing.

The plant is the aptly named “hardy orange,” actually a true citrus species, Citrus trifoliata. (Previously, hardy orange was a citrus relative; botanists recently moved it to the Citrus genus from the closely related Poncirus genus.)
Hardy oranges ripening

Mostly I planted hardy orange for its stems, whose show is at the same time intimidating, interesting, and decorative. Stems of the variety that I grow, Flying Dragon, twist and contort every which way, and then add to the show with large, recurving thorns. Stems and thorns are forest green, even as they age, and remain so all through winter to make the plant especially decorative when leafless.Bare stems of hardy orange

I would have planted Flying Dragon hardy orange just for its stems. But adding to the show, in spring are white flowers — citrus flowers — that are fragrant just like those of oranges and lemons. On my plant, at least, they’re smaller with commensurately less fragrance.

This year, this month, Flying Dragon has presented yet another attractive face. Its leaves are preparing to drop by turning a pinkish crimson. This color, developing for now on leaves towards the ends of the topmost branches contrasts nicely with the still forest green leaves and the few fruits starting to yellow.Fall color of hardy orange

The problem with the fruits, gustatorily, is that they’re not very juicy, and they are very tart, somewhat bitter, and seedy. Still, they can be used to add a bit of home-grown citrus flavor to an -ade (Flying Dragonade?), fish, etc.

I Plant A Seed

New hardy orange plants are easy to raise from seed. The most important ingredient, as with other citrus, is not letting the seeds dry out once extracted from the fruit.

With most plants, you don’t get an exact replica of the mother plant in seedlings. Plant a McIntosh apple seed and the resulting tree will not bear McIntosh apples. (Just as you are not a genetic replica of your mother.) It depends on what pollinated the mother tree and how the chromosomes sorted out. Even though peaches are self-pollinating, the offspring of a Redhaven peach won’t bear Redhaven peaches.

Plant a seed of Flying Dragon hardy orange (or some other citrus varieties, in general), and you could get more Flying Dragons, exact replicas of the mother plant. That’s because citrus are among the few plants that exhibit apomixis, that is, seeds within the fruits that develop from only mother plant tissue.

Other plants that also bear apomictic seeds are some species of onion and dandelion. Some coneflowers, apples, and raspberries also bear apomictic seeds, but only if the flowers are pollinated — even though the pollen does not insinuate itself into the apomictic seed’s genetics.

Not all the seeds within a Flying Dragon fruit are apomictic. Hence, not all will grow to become Flying Dragons.

Hardy orange seedlings

The seedling on right is probably apomictic

Further complicating matters, some seeds can develop into more than one seedling! And some of those seedlings growing from that one seed might be apomictic while others will be run-of-the-mill.

None of these complications interferes with my propagating Flying Dragons from seed. The contorted stems and recurved thorns are so distinctive that it’s easy to tell the Flying Dragons from the others. Apomictic seedlings also are generally more vigorous than sexually-produced seedlings.

Not Everyone’s A Fan

Southerners are not nearly as enamored with hardy orange as I am . The hardiness, the thorns, and the seeds’ enthusiasm to sprout make the plants a threat down there, where the shrubs grow from 8 to 15 feet tall.

Hardy oranges were introduced into the south about 150 years ago, possibly to contain livestock. There, the plants have spread to woodlands, forest edges, and fencerows to shade out native plants. The lack of affection for the plant might be summed up in a quote from a Texas publication stating that hardy orange “does respond well to bulldozing.”

While bemoaning not being able to grow southern magnolia, gardenia, camellia, and crape myrtle this far north, I am thankful for being able to grow hardy orange without any danger.



A Creature Not Really So Strange

    One of the strangest creatures I ever found in my compost was the dinosaur that emerged today as I turned the pile. It was worse for the wear, the gash in its head probably from my machete, the “solar powered” shredder I use for stemmy compostables like corn stalks. (Think about it.) After a year in the pile’s innards, the dinosaur’s greenish, scaly skin has been bleached almost white.

Dinosaur emerging from compost pile

Dinosaur emerging from compost pile

    I typically build compost piles through summer and into fall, then turn them the following spring. Turning, not absolutely necessary, lets me mark the piles progress and, as needed, fluff it up for aeration or sprinkle it if too dry. Many people use fencing to enclose a compost pile, which is effective as an enclosure but exposes the pile to too much drying air. My bins, made from artificial wood decking, stacked edgewise and notched together like Lincoln Logs, have solid walls which helps hold in some heat and moisture.
    I should mention, at this point, that the dinosaur might, in fact be a lizard. Oh, and something else: It’s made of a rubbery plastic. This ‘saur was unearthed many years ago as I was digging up a mulberry tree. Once salvaged, it resided in one of my garden beds, where it startled people (including me, occasionally) despite its mere foot-long length. It must have hitchhiked along to the compost pile with some garden debris at the end of the season.

Good Feedstuffs Make Good Compost

    Just about everything goes into the compost piles: weedy hay, garden debris, kitchen scraps, horse manure, old cotton or wool clothes, weeds, and anything else that is or was living, that is, organic. Also, some dolomitic limestone, which is rock so never was living but is “organic” in the cultural and legal sense. Dolomitic limestone adds calcium and magnesium to the finished mix, increases the alkalinity of the finished compost (to offset the naturally increasing acidity of soils here in the humid northeast), and improves its texture.

Sweater, almost composted

Sweater, almost composted

   The other ingredients offer a spectrum of macro- and micronutrients to the finished compost. Carbon and nitrogen are the two feedstuffs that composting microorganisms need in greatest amounts. I don’t dwell too heavily on the ideal 15 to 1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen for a balanced feed that gets the pile heating and the compost finishing up quickly. Much depends on the size of the feedstuffs and the presence of other natural chemicals, such as natural lignins in wood shavings that slow down its decomposition irrespective of carbon to nitrogen ratios.
    I do pay attention to what I put in the piles, using a thermometer, my nose, and my eyes to monitor progress. No heat, bad smells, and slow progress indicate, respectively, too much or too little moisture or too little nitrogen, too much water or nitrogen, and too much or too little moisture or too little nitrogen. It’s all good though. Adjustments can be made when turning a pile, or do nothing and wait longer. Any pile of organic materials eventually becomes compost.

Real Reptiles in the Pile

    Other strange denizens, living denizens this time, of my compost piles have been black rat snakes. A few years back, I’d bump into them slithering out of the compost pile as well as coiled into the branches of a blueberry bush and, unfortunately, coming out of the chicken house, two swollen lumps in their bodies evidence of a recent two-egg meal. All-in-all the snakes are welcome for their meals of mice and rats.

Solar-powered compost shredder

Solar-powered compost shredder

    I’d also come upon clusters of the snakes’ soft-shelled eggs, up to two dozen or more, as I turned the compost. After incubation in a terrarium, out slid not-very-cute baby snakes.

Decisions, Decisions

    Turning compost piles provides relatively mindless relief from more thoughtful gardening such as planting decisions. Where to plant, for example, a dwarf shipova tree, an Alderman plum, and a Concorde pear? And should I risk planting out the borderline hardy Flying Dragon hardy orange (Poncirus, now named Citrus, trifoliata)?
    Easier to place are the vegetables, which need to be rotated every year, never (well, almost never) grown in the same location more than once every three years. Rotation prevents overwintering, nonmobile pests from having something to attack close at hand. The vegetable garden is in two banks of beds, so I just move what’s planted in each bed two beds counterclockwise each year, two beds to get them further away from previous years location than would a one bed rotation.
    Still, lettuce transplants, extra onions to be harvested as scallions, radishes, and short rows of arugula get spotted in willy nilly.

Heady Stuff, Here

    May 5th: This calm, warm morning the whole yard is awash in the sweet, spicy scent wafting from yellow trumpets of clove currant (Ribes odoratum) flowers. In August, this deer, drought, cold, heat, and pest resistant plant will be covered with large, black sweet-tart currants.

Clove currant flowers

Clove currant flowers

Clove currant fruit

Clove currant fruit


A Giveaway, Dragons, Seedlings, and Aromas

I purchase vegetable and flower seeds from a handful of seed companies. All offer high quality seeds, organically grown when possible, and at reasonable prices. High Mowing Organic Seeds of Wolcott, VT is one of those companies. 

      And now for the giveaway: A “High Mowing” cap and their boxed set of seeds for heirloom vegetable lovers. The box includes packets from such old-time favorites as Brandywine tomato, Red Salad Bowl lettuce, Detroit Dark Red Beet, Red Russian Kale, and others. To enter this giveaway, in the “Comments” box below tell us about some of your favorite heirloom vegetables. Winner of both the hat and the box of seeds will be selected randomly and contacted for mailing by email.


        There must be a converse to the saying, “Be careful what you wish for . . . “ And if there is, I’ve realized it. I wrote, a couple of weeks ago, about the so-called hardy orange, Poncirus trifoliata, which, with warmer winters, now seems hardy in my garden. I’m looking forward to fragrant flowers and “oranges” that have a citrus-y smell even if they are too tart and bitter to eat.
Last time, I also mentioned one especially striking variety of hardy orange, Flying Dragon. This variety has the thorny, evergreen stems of the species, but the stems wriggle and squirm and twist every which way. It’s very ornamental, and also, like the species, will have fragrant flowers and orange fruits to come.
I saw a Flying Dragon sitting in a pot at a consulting job last week and mentioned my affection for the plant. “Take it,” I was told, “it’s an extra.” I did, and am now the proud owner of a 3 foot high Flying Dragon.
You can imagine how congested Flying Dragon could become, with with all the twisting stems and — I forgot to mention — thorns that curl backwards. Those ornamental assets made the pruning, which my new plant needed, all the more difficult. I hope, in years to come, that the saying I associate with this plant won’t become “Be careful what you wish for because it might come true.”
The march of vegetables is on its way. With decades of growing vegetables under my belt, I have a schedule for sowing seeds indoors, transplanting seedlings, and sowing seeds outdoors. It’s not a schedule writ in stone, though. Each year it gets tweaked as my experience grows, and to account for recent years’ earlier warming springs.
My schedule is applicable to other gardens with average date of the last killing frost in spring of mid-May. It’s even applicable to gardens elsewhere by merely shifting sowing and transplanting dates forward or backward by the same number of weeks they differ locally from the May 15th, last frost date at my farmden.

Here, then, is my schedule for sowing and planting some vegetables (after June 1, all plantings are outdoors):

•Feb. 1: onion, leek, and celery seeded indoors;
•Mar 1: broccoli, cabbage, kale, brussels sprouts, eggplant, and pepper seeded indoors;
•April 1: tomato seeded indoors; peas seeded outdoors;
•April 15: onion, leek, broccoli, cabbage, kale, and brussels sprouts seedlings transplanted outdoors; carrots, turnips, and beets seeded outdoors;
•May 1: cucumber and melon seeded indoors; celery seedlings transplanted outdoors;
•May 15: beans, squash, okra, and corn seeded outdoors;
•May 21: tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings transplanted outdoors;
•June 1: cucumber and melon seedlings transplanted outdoors; second seeding of corn;
•June 15: broccoli, cabbage, and kale seeded for autumn harvest; second seeding of cucumber and bush beans; third seeding of corn;
•July 1: second seeding of summer squash; fourth seeding of corn;
July 15: third seeding of bush beans.
The nice thing about having this schedule is that the weather no longer pushes me around. A warm, sunny day in the middle of April might tempt me to plant corn — except if I look at my schedule. The year before last, the last spring frost was in early April, so corn could, in fact, have been planted earlier. Last year provided greater temptation with a spate of 70 degree temperatures in March. The mercury plummeted in mid-May, which would have snuffed out the corn sprouts.
I have a similar schedule for the autumn and winter garden. But no need to look at that right now. (A more detailed schedule for all sowings can be found in my book Weedless Gardening, available by clicking on the cover image at right.)
Shoots terminated in branching stems with round buds hinted at flowers to come and now, after a long, slow buildup, flowers have finally opened on my poet’s jasmine (Jasminium officinale). For many years this plant has disappointed me with no or paltry flowering, to the extent that I threatened to walk it to the compost pile if this year was a no-show. That threat was made easier because I now have another kind of “jasmine” (Cestrum nocturnum) that blooms more freely (with a different aroma).
The threat evidently was effective. At least that’s my only explanation because I can’t put my finger on exactly what I did differently this year. Sun, water, and fertilizer kept the plant growing well through summer and some thirst and a spell of exposure to near freezing temperatures in autumn were supposed to make for abundant blooms. Or so I’ve been told. But I’ve heard that and done all that for years.
Then again, last year I did pinch out the tips of growing shoots through summer, something I haven’t done previously. Perhaps that’s what brought on the better, but still hardly abundant, flowers.
So the plant gets pinched, and gets to live — for at least another year.
Citrus, Flying Dragon

Citrus in New York?

Winters have been warmer here for the past few years and, so far at least, this winter is playing out to be the warmest ever. But even the “global warming” cloud has its silver lining. Snow is great fun and cold is invigorating but one of my regrets in living in a cold winter region has been not being able to harvest fresh citrus fruits from outdoor trees. If things keep progressing in their present direction, as predicted, that situation may change.
The coldest temperature so far this winter has been down around 9° F, and three of my citrus plants still look fine. In the ground, outdoors! Technically, they are a citrus relative, Poncirus trifoliata, also known as trifoliate orange. The leaves resemble citrus leaves, the white flowers resemble and have the fragrance of citrus flowers, and the fruits, orange and an inch-and-a-half across, resemble citrus fruits inside and out. Too bad poncirus is barely edible, although it can be squeezed for juice that is diluted and sweetened to make an -ade.
Flying Dragon poncirus
Even if poncirus was not edible, it would be worth growing for its beauty, especially the Flying Dragon variety with its contorted, green (and thorny) stems and leaves.
My three poncirus plants started out as seeds plucked from a fruit on a plant growing against a brick wall in northern New Jersey. The seeds sprout and grow easily. After growing one year in pots, into the ground they went. The first couple of years, winter lows of -10° and -19° killed them back to the snow line. They’re allegedly cold-hardy below zero degrees F., but that hardiness comes with age. Also, the pattern of cold development and its duration affects cold-hardiness. This year, so far, the plants look fine from top to bottom.
Poncirus is close enough to citrus botanically that its been hybridized with citrus to make more edible, albeit less cold-hardy, hybrids. Like the citrange, from the mating with sweet orange, hardy to 5 to 10°F. A few varieties of citrange have been developed, all billed as “approaching edibility” but, like poncirus, making a good -ade.
Not to give up on true citrus — yet. Probably the hardiest is yuzu, a hybrid of a sour mandarin and the barely edible Ichang papeda (C. ichangensis). Ichang papeda is the hardiest evergreen citrus. (Poncirus sheds its leaves in winter.) So yuzu is a true citrus and it is quite cold-hardy, down to about 10°F. And it is eaten. The great plant explorer, Frank N. Meyer described it, in 1914, “rind full of oil glands, smelling like a fine lemon; segments separating easily; fairly juicy and of an agreeable sharp sour taste.”

Mandarins (tangerines, C. reticulata) are also among the hardiest of citrus, and they taste very good straight up. The deep orange fruits of the variety Changsha are sweet and juicy, and I actually have a potted plant from which I’ve been trying to coax fruit for more than 5 years — or so I thought.
Today I checked the original bag in which I received cuttings of the alleged Changsha. Turns out the name scrawled on the bag is Changshou, not Changsha. Bummer, I was looking forward to Changsha. Changshou is another hardy citrus-type fruit, actually a kumquat, from the closely related genus Fortunella. Kumquats are cold-hardy to between 10 and 20°F., and are a fruit I’ve grown — indoors in winter, outdoors in summer — for many years. 

Meiwa kumquat
Kumquats, like poncirus, hybridize readily with citrus species. Hmmm, why not combine the hardy kumquat with the hardy mandarin? It’s been done, the result of the mating being the Nippon orangequat, hardy to 10°F. and with a mild flavor, if left to hang on the plant long enough, and, like a kumquat, having an edible skin.
Except for poncirus, I’m not really hoping to harvest any citrus-type fruits from outdoor plants anytime soon, perhaps ever. Surviving the depths of winter cold is one thing. The plant also has to be able to ripen its fruit within the growing season. My Meiwa kumquats, for instance, ripen in February, and I expect even a few nights in the 20s would turn the fruit to mush.
For now, then, I continue growing the more edible citrus-type fruits in pots that winter indoors. Still, poncirus, that citrus look-alike will look cool out in the landscape.