I worry more about the sex of my plants than I ever did about the sex of my children before they were born. With the children, whether male or female, they still had the same potential to develop into a person who could do a lot of cool things. But with certain plants, you really only want them to do one cool thing: yield fruit. And if they’re not female, or don’t have a male nearby to pollinate them, they just won’t yield. Anyone who has grown marijuana knows about this. The male doesn’t provide buds, so unless you’re a serious grower trying to breed or cross-breed plants, there’s no reason to keep a male alive. In fact, a male’s presence can even lower the quality of the female buds by making them seedy.
But some plants are monoecious; they have both male and female flowers on the same plant. The term monoecious comes from the Greek and translates as “one household.” I knew that certain squash were like this but wasn’t quite sure what that meant for someone who wanted to grow squash for their fruit and maybe an occasional squash blossom fried in butter. Then my neighbor Andy came over last year and saw my Rouge Vif d’Etampes pumpkin plant teeming with flowers. “Why don’t you pick some of these and eat them?” he asked. I confessed that I wasn’t sure which flowers I could safely eat without disturbing the plant’s fruit production. “Simple,” he explained, “the males have no bulge behind them; that’s how you know they’re not going to fruit. Pick them and eat them.” The female flowers have an ovary at their base. They need to be left alone if you want fruit to form. Of course, the females also need some male flowers for pollination, so you don’t want to fry up every single male squash blossom in butter either.
That was last summer. We ate a fair amount of male flowers from that Rouge pumpkin plant and it still yielded three of the most gorgeous fruit I’ve ever seen:
Five years ago, I got the idea to plant Corylus americana, the American hazelnut. I wanted to plant something nut-bearing but didn’t have the space for a massive tree like a walnut or chestnut. The hazelnut seemed like a good option because it is more of a shrub than a tree and supposedly gets to be no bigger than 12 feet (this is holding true so far). In my search for growers of Corylus Americana, I found a groovy place in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that specializes in edible plants. At the time, Oikos Tree Crops had a special where if you bought more than 25 hazelnuts, you would pay something like $2.50 per shrub. Of course these were itty bitty plants, but I had a planting party in my neighborhood and we popped all but three of them in the public way. The rest went home to me. Two years ago, I noticed catkins on the hazelnuts and began to worry. Two of them were taking up prime real estate in my city yard, and if catkins were a sign of their maleness and thus, their inability to fruit, I didn’t want them around. Then I heard a talk from a grower down in southern Illinois. He praised the American hazelnut for its fruiting power. He said once the nuts started to ripen, he could approach that shrub with a shotgun and still the squirrels wouldn’t leave it. “Go ahead,” the squirrels would say to him. “Kill us if you like; we’re not giving up the nuts.” I went home dreaming of the day when my city squirrels would say the same to me, yet remained uneducated as to how a female shrub could have catkins and whether my hazelnuts would ever bear fruit. Surely Oikos Tree Crops knew how to keep a customer ordering 25 of the same shrubs happy?
It wasn’t until this season that the hazelnut’s monoeciousness finally dawned on me. The catkins are the male flowers while the nuts come from the females. They live on the same plant in perfect male and female harmony, and the result is a plant with more amazing features. The largest of my hazelnut shrubs now has beautiful fruits, encased in a fuzzy, fibrous, light-green husk. They are not yet ripe, so the squirrels haven’t started their stake-out, but I’m anticipating some fun adventures this fall surrounding this “one household” shrub and the fuzzy-tailed creatures who share our home garden and our taste for nuts.