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The Garden Gate: Grapevine goodness gets sunny boost

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Ellen Shipman was one of the first women to become a registered landscape architect, and one of her signature trademarks in the gardens of her design is the decorative use of pergolas and arbors draped and shaded by grapevines.

Many Midwestern areas still use this reflection of the growing of grapes for wines and raisins, although her pergolas and arbors were purely ornamental and the grapes were part of the decoration.

Grapevines are mentioned many times in the Bible from the time of Noah to the time of Jesus. Prophets, patriarchs, psalmists and apostles all speak of them, often in a symbolic sense. Grapevines are the first cultivated plants recorded in the Bible. They have followed the course of civilization from region to region, thus their exact origin is shrouded in mystery.

Grapes were used to make wine and were dried in the sun to make raisins, a staple in most ancient households. They are mentioned repeatedly in the Bible and were used in cookery much as they are today.

Subjects of King David were said to have brought “asses laden with cheese and raisins” to pay their taxes. By 400 B.C. Asia Minor had become a center for raisin production. Raisins held a prominent place in the elaborate menus of Nero’s time.

Raisins, currants, dates and figs were among the stores shipped westward to enrich the medieval tables of Europe.

Currants take their name from Corinth and are actually a variety of grape, not another kind of fruit. Figs, too, were dried in the sun and transported far from their original sources in ancient times.

Figs came originally from Araby, as Arabia was called, to Syria and then to Israel. The earliest Phoenician traders introduced figs into their African and Mediterranean colonies some time before the second century B.C. The early Greeks planted fig trees in neighboring countries. By the time the Christian era began, the Romans had carried the ficus, or fig tree, to all the temperate regions of Europe.

Spanish missionaries planted fig trees around their California missions six years before the American Revolution. They made famous the variety still known as Mission Figs, black figs with small seeds and a very distinctive flavor. The French later brought figs to New Orleans.

The Adriatic and Italian version of figs introduced in 1865 have bright green skin which turns amber as it dries. The Kadota variety was brought from Italy in 1890. The Calimyrna came from Syria in 1882 but was not grown successfully here until 1899. The name combines California and Smyrna to make a new word, meaning good morning.

The story of the Calimyrna fig in this country is interesting. After its first introduction, it would fail to grow to maturity. Orchardists were in despair, being unable to determine the cause. But then a man came from Turkey with a few Capri figs. These are not edible, but are the nesting places of a variety of tiny wasps that live in these figs during cold weather. They emerge in the spring and fly to the young Calimyrna trees, bringing about pollination. Without these tiny wasps, the Calimyrna figs were totally ineffective.

Prunes are sun-dried plums. They originated in western Asia near the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea and were carried by early settlers to other climes. They were first brought to this country by Louis Pellier, a French immigrant.

Sun-dried fruits have been known and used at least from the time of the ancient Egyptians. Practical drying is supposed to have been discovered when some scattered bunches of grapes, left on the vines after harvest, were found to have a delicious flavor, although they were shriveled in appearance. This led to successful attempts to dry other fruits, a boon to the world since.

The Spanish missionaries should be given the credit for first planting fruit trees and grapevines on the west coast of America, and for producing dried fruits at the mission settlements. The devout padres did not dream that California would someday become the world’s center for dried fruit production.

If you have grapevines in your garden you can make raisins. Spread the grapes on trays and leave them in full sunlight until they are very shriveled and dry and look like the raisins that you buy at the supermarket. It really is that simple.

You might feel an almost spooky kinship with all the people in the Bible who did that very same thing.

Just think how many of our favorite foods have raisins in them. The list is lengthy, worldwide and delicious.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.