Notice the small trees, they yield the best surprises

Late October brought the first hard frost to the ridge, and now the temperature dips to the low 30s most mornings. Frosty temperatures send my wife and me in search of persimmons, which ripen after a few cold nights. Ours grow in the hayfield.

Persimmon

Persimmon is a small, inconspicuous tree that rarely grows taller than 50 feet. In September, however, its fruits become obvious, but only female trees bear fruit. Biologists call plants with separate sexes “dioecious;” fruits form only from female flowers.

When persimmon fruits first form, they are green and inedible. Bite into one in September, and your mouth puckers. After a few hard frosts, though, persimmons ripen and sweeten. They turn yellow and then orange. When the skin wrinkles and the flesh gets soft, persimmons are ready to eat.

Ripe persimmons don’t last long in the wild. Fruit-eating birds such as pileated woodpeckers, robins, bluebirds and waxwings love them, opossums climb the highest branches for a taste of gold, and foxes and coyotes gobble those that fall to the ground.

Check coyote droppings in the fall and often you’ll find persimmon seeds that have passed through their digestive system unscathed. It’s a trip, in fact, that helps the seeds germinate in the spring.

To propagate persimmons, collect some seeds from ripe fruits, remove the pulp and air dry for two days. Then sow the seeds about a half-inch deep in a rich soil bed and mulch for winter.

Pawpaw

Another inconspicuous fruit-bearing tree that catches my attention is pawpaw. Pawpaws are members of the tropical custard-apple family. They can grow to a height of 40 feet and are recognized by their large six- to 12-inch leaves and two-inch bell-shaped flowers that morph from green to brown to purple.

Pawpaw fruits take weeks to mature. They grow to three to five inches in length, and the skin turns from green to brown to almost black. When ripe, opossums, raccoons and squirrels enjoy the pawpaw’s banana-like flesh.

The seeds, protected by tasty orange flesh, resemble inch-long beans. When I’m lucky enough to find a good pawpaw crop, I collect and transport them in paper bags. By the time I get home, the car is filled with the sweet aroma of ripening pawpaws.

Witch hazel

Witch hazel is a third small tree that catches my eye in November.

It blooms only after its leaves fall. Its spindly yellow flowers are easy to recognize because the petals are narrow and twisted, and it’s the only fall-blooming tree in the woods. Just before it flowers, the previous year’s seed capsules explode and scatter the seeds as far as 20 feet. Turkey and grouse eat witch hazel seeds.

Osage orange

A final fall tree that catches my attention is Osage orange. Originally native to the southern plains states, it has become naturalized east of the Mississippi River. Before the invention of barbed wire, jagged Osage orange trees were planted as living fences to keep livestock from wandering.

Its wood was also favored by early archers and bow makers, including members of the Osage Indian tribe. Earlier French explorers called it bois d’arc, meaning bow wood. Its wood is stronger and tougher than white oak and hickory.

The reason I notice bois d’arc relates more to its fruit than its wood. Its large, greenish-yellow, grapefruit-sized fruits are conspicuous after leaf fall while both in the tree or on the ground. The fruit’s surface is covered by convoluted fissures that suggest a human brain. The fruit also explains other common names for the tree – mock orange, thornapple, and hedge apple.

Though Osage oranges are large and would seem to be a good food item for a variety of wildlife, few animals eat them. Squirrels and deer occasionally nibble at hedge apples, but I’ve never found a reference that describes them as an important wildlife food.

Though we typically notice plants during the spring and summer growing seasons, some such as persimmon, pawpaws, witch hazel and Osage orange save their grandest displays for fall. As you walk the woods this fall, keep your eyes peeled for some of the area’s most fascinating small trees.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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