A Gift from My Mother and the Pillbugs

Marilyn and Cricket

My mother Marilyn and Cricket in 2009

My mother had Alzheimer’s. She passed away in 2012.

I was a loved and indulged child and my mother and I were very close. I had the usual adolescent fallings out, and a rather less usual falling out when I was an adult, and I didn’t see her for many years. When we were reunited, I believe she was already losing some cognition due to dementia, but we felt like family again, and remained so until the end of her life, even though quite early in the illness she stopped being able to remember my name or call me her daughter. Those things didn’t matter. We were completely comfortable with each other and could laugh and enjoy things the same way we had earlier in our lives.

Pomegranates

When she still had enough cognitive ability to send me things in the mail, my mother would send me California pomegranates in the fall. She sometimes bought them and some she picked herself off a bush in her neighborhood. She knew they were one of my very favorite things.

When I was a kid, our next-door neighbors had a giant pomegranate bush. I got spoiled. There were more pomegranates than any five families could eat and I had carte blanche to forage as often as I liked. They were giant, got perfectly ripe and split open, and my best friend and I spent many happy hours eating pomegranate seeds (outdoors, because of the mess) until our hands and faces were magenta with the juice.

As an adult, no longer living in California, I have been very disappointed in the pomegranates that make it to the stores here. They are rarely ripe.

But back in about 2005, I accidentally grew a pomegranate bush. And some years later, I actually got a pomegranate off of it. Here is the story of my pomegranate bush. It starts with a hot pepper plant.

The Chiltepin

Chiltepin_Cluster

Beautiful chiltepin peppers Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the mid 1990s, in what I would call the early days of the Internet, I belonged to an email discussion group called Chile-Heads. It was for gardeners and cooks: anyone who enjoyed growing and cooking with hot peppers. From time to time people would offer seeds, and one year I got some from a guy in Corpus Christi, Texas. As I recall I traded some seeds from some extra tasty chile anchos I had grown. He called his peppers “petins” and I believe they were a variant of the chiltepin. The peppers are very small and round and are quite hot. I came to love those plants and would grow a couple every year. (They are perennials in parts of Texas, but the winters are too cold where I live.)

One year the bush had gotten so magnificent that I decided to try to overwinter it. I dug it up in mid-autumn, before a freeze could get it, and put it in the biggest pot I could manage to tote around. It lived in my guest room for the winter. I successfully did this several years in a row with the same plant, which started looking like a little tree. I would plant it in the garden again every summer.

I know I was doing this as far back as 1998, because when my sister came to visit that year I remember her mentioning how much she enjoyed staying in the guest room with the giant friendly pepper bush.

Then This Happened

Here’s how I described, in a letter to my mother, the next thing that happened.

10/7/07

I grew a pomegranate bush by accident. I had this enormous chile pepper plant called a petin that I would pot up in a huge pot and bring in the house every winter. Along with the garden soil would come some pillbugs. They live on rotting matter, and over the course of the winter, living in a potted plant, they would run out of stuff to eat. I would see them patrolling round and round the edge of the pot in the morning, seeming rather desperate. So I started to feed them. (I have always liked pillbugs, and I certainly don’t want to see any wildlife starve because I have interfered in their lives.) I would give them peelings and old stuff from the refrigerator. They were thrilled and would chomp it all up as soon as it got a little old.

Once I let one of the pomegranates you sent me go partly bad, so I put the fermented seeds in the pot for the pillbugs. They dutifully ate the pulp. I wonder if they got tipsy? But they left the actual seeds, and some little volunteer pomegranate plants appeared in the pot with the pepper plant. I took care of one of the plants and finally planted it out. The picture shows how big it was last year. It’s lots bigger now. They are not technically supposed to survive here because of the hard freezes in winter. But it has survived 2 or 3 winters so I guess it is going to make it OK.

I miss getting pomegranates from you. It’s hard to get ripe ones here. But my bush had several blossoms this year and I am hoping for some fruit next year.

So that dates my pomegranate bush back to 2004 or 2005. It is now 11 or 12 years old.

I should mention that I love pillbugs. They are also known as sowbugs, wood lice, armadillo bugs, and roly polys. Did you know that they are not insects, but crustaceans? I think they are fascinating. They look cool, don’t hurt anybody, and they clean up the trash. Here’s a photo of some in my garden. I’m not embedding because I imagine they are gross to some people. Not me!

I never knew whether to expect fruit from the bush. I didn’t even know if it would be fertile. If the seed had been from a grocery store fruit, it could have been some sort of hybrid. Gardeners hope for everything though, so it was always in the back of my mind. As I said in the letter to my mom, I got some blooms early on, but nothing came of them. This happened for 8 years or so, and I had given up hope. But in 2013, when I was idly looking at the bush with an eye to trimming it, I found two baby pomegranates on it! I went ahead and trimmed the bush and idiotically managed to trim off one of the branches with a pomegranate. Aaaaaagh!

But one survived, and come November, it was one of the best things I ever ate.

Pomegranate

My one prize pomegranate

Inspiration and Failure

Naturally, being a gardener, I decided to read up on pomegranates again and maximize my chances of getting fruit the next year. I pruned when it said to. I fed what it said to, when it said to. And I got NO blooms on the plant in 2014. Zero, nada. I was very ticked off. I didn’t pamper it the next year and again, got no blooms. It even entered my mind to take out the bush. It’s not all that handsome. But I didn’t really entertain that thought seriously. How could I, with its connection to my mom? There’s even that mother/daughter thing in mythology with Persephone and the pomegranate seeds. So of course I kept the bush.

This Year

So now it’s 2016 and I have taken a few sideways glances at the bush throughout the spring. Nothing doing. I have thought frustrated, slightly wicked thoughts about the pomegranate bush. I’m still miffed that it tantalized me that one year.

Then, two days ago, I saw two blooms opening! I took a good look and counted about 10 more, but some could be male blooms only. The male blooms pollinate, but don’t fruit. So now I am checking every day and cross pollinating the hermaphroditic blooms (yes, that’s really the term) by hand as they open. (A friend of mine used to call that having sex with her plants.)

I have big plans for my 5 – 10 pomegranates this year. I shall baby those fruit and build them little slings and do whatever it takes to keep them safe. If I harvest some fruit, I’ll do as my sister suggests and share some seeds with the pillbug colony. It’s only fair.

But even if I get no fruit, the bush will stay, of course. My mom sent me the seeds. And the pillbugs helped them grow.

pomegranate blossom hermaphrodite pollen

Blossom from my pomegranate bush

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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18 Responses to A Gift from My Mother and the Pillbugs

  1. judi Anderson-wright says:

    Lovely, such special memories are a gift for a lifetime! Thanks for sharing from your heart! I also love pomegranates.????

  2. Neil Aaland says:

    What a fun memory. I also love pomegranates. There was a big tree behind our old house on Risdon Road; I used to steal one every now and then. My son is a huge pomegranate fan, and always buys a box when they show up at Costco each fall.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Cool, Neil! Which side was the tree on? Straight back? I remember your neighbors’ yard on the right as you went out the sliding door. We went over there and played Star Trek a few times.

      • Neil Aaland says:

        It was directly behind the house. We weren’t supposed to go there because the owner was cranky. Wow, I didn’t remember playing Star Trek. Must have been with Danny Latch next door on the right.

        • Eileen Anderson says:

          I think I remember about the cranky owner. Yes, that sounds right about Danny. They had some kind of cement porch and we sat around in chairs and lounges like we were on the bridge of the Enterprise. Giving commands and beaming people up and down. It sounds like a pretty boring version of Star Trek, now that I describe it! Maybe Dean and I were too young to do much else….

  3. fearfuldogs says:

    What a lovely story and such a gorgeous flower. I remember my first pomegranate, my dad brought it home from the grocery store when I was a kid. And as for pill bugs being crustaceans, who knew! And how can we not be delighted now to find them?

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Thank you, Debbie. I wish I had a photo of my “pet” pill bugs in the big pot with the pepper bush. I did plant them out again very carefully when I replanted the bush. The crustacean thing is one reason you never see them in very dry weather. They need moisture and hide out accordingly.

  4. bibseyb says:

    That is so lovely. Thank you for the lesson, too in patience, and not giving up on something because it doesn’t perform quite like you think it should. The pictures of the blossoms are reward enough. And thank you for the lesson about pill bugs. Now they will be my little helpers.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Oh, thank you very much! And that’s exactly how I think of the pillbugs. Sweet little things.

  5. meghan says:

    I love this story! I used to garden with my grandfather, and have always doted over a few container plants as we moved around. This year I built a little raised bed, and am growing annuals and tomatoes and squashes. So exciting and hopeful! Since I’m growing squashes, I’m doing the same crawl around and hand fertilize routine, distressing over whether my Delicata squash will ever sprout a female blossom and crowing over my first perfect summer squash, in addition to petting my first little green heirloom tomatoes. I laughed a little bit in recognition when you described your intense research and dutiful plant feedings–that’s been me since April!

    Thank you, too, for the new appreciation for pill bugs. I always thought they were cute, and enjoyed letting them scuttle around on my hands as a kid. But I’ve been harboring some animosity toward them every since they mowed down several of my flower seedlings last month–at least, the pill bugs have gotten the blame, although perhaps not fairly. Time to start appreciating the good work they do and relocating them away from my seedlings a little more gently.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Oh, that’s a wonderful picture. There is nothing like gardening to imbue our hopes and dreams as well as appreciation of the here and now.

      Pillbugs may well eat your seedlings. But they really prefer decayed things I think. Relocating is good; mulching may help as well.

      I have raised beds, too. I bought untreated cedar years ago. That’s one of the timbers you can see the pillbugs hanging out in in the pillbug pic. I have enjoyed that the timbers have decayed into the ground, even as they still fulfill their function.

  6. Ingrid says:

    What a wonderful story (or stories, because really there are a few)! Thank you for sharing. Are pill bugs what we call potato bugs up here? Are they little grey cylindrical critters with segments showing, who curl into a ball if touched?

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Thank you! Yes, “potato bug” is the one nickname that I didn’t mention, because I think there are other bugs called potato bugs as well. But yes, you described them exactly.

  7. Lydia says:

    Lovely story – rich with images, artfully crafted. and warmed my heart. Thank you.

  8. Kriss Frazee says:

    Love everything about this and aren’t the flowers pretty on those pomegranate bushes! Roly poly’s were a favorite with one of my daughters too!

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