Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Curry Tree

We brought five curry seeds back from our honeymoon in Costa Rica -- not in our stomachs like invasive seeds usually travel, but as part of a clandestine collection of naturalia (sand dollar, volcanic rock, other seeds) that made it through customs and onto the airplane. The curry trees, themselves transplants to Costa Rica, help stitch our yard into a pan-continental crazy quilt of “patchy landscapes”* traversed by plants, water, animals, pollutants, forms of energy and information, and other flows. One of the potted curries has seeds, and we'll see if they're fertile.

Like eggs, seeds are fleeting proto-forms, containers for something emergent. Seeds usually propagate by being consumed and pooped out by animals or strewn to the wind, trash in either case. I wonder if curries will naturalize in North America -- a future as vulnerable and precarious as dormant wildflower seeds in winter, when no blooming flower yet lives. Curry groves overgrowing abandoned mall parking lots in New Orleans.

We ate the curry berries on a salad served at Finca Exotica, a "wildlife rescue ecolodge" in Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula near the entrance to Corcovado National Park. A biodiverse paradise: you sleep in ocean-earshot canvas tents designed as bamboo tiki huts, surrounded by exotic fruit tree gardens, nestled up against steep jungle hills. Scarlet macaws flock overhead. The land had been clearcut for cattle. As part of the Saimiri biological refuge, the resort doubles as a reforestation project, and gardens have reclaimed most of the landscape. The monkeys and cats have come back to the foothills. The couple who run Finca Exotica are involved in a cat conservation pilot program based on tourism (while pelts or live animals fetch poachers more money). One day at lunch we meet their friend, who documents the cat's spread outside Corcovado National Park using auto-triggered night cameras. He's also passionate about the indigenous Ngäbe as an endangered culture, their youth leaving reservations for the cities.

Curry trees come from the Indian subcontinent, where they grow wild in forests and post-agricultural and post-industrial landscapes. People harvest the leaves as key ingredients for food and medicine. It's medicinal food. Migrants have spread curry trees around the world in a patchy landscape of flavors and therapies. Biochemists say curry's antioxident powers have healed the pancreases of diabetic rats. We give one of our seedlings to Boggy Creek Farm so they can propagate the trees. They get to be fifteen or so feet tall, and the flowers attract butterflies. If the atmosphere warms up over the next twenty years, curries just might acclimate to Austin, joining Chinaberries and Ligustrum in our "invasive," bird-propagated urban forest. Last winter the curry we planted in the ground died back during the freezes, but regrew in the spring.** I daydream about what it will smell like after a rain, if it lives to get big.

When I ask our tour guide at the Wilson Botanical Garden outside San Vito why the fruit of the Noni trees smell so horribly rotten, he sagely says, "Things get used to things." The plant adapted to keep away some voracious eater, or to attract a certain pollinator that found its blue cheese stench irresistible. Conversely, when you patch things into new lands, they take on new sensory qualities in the encounter with new life forms. The various deterritorialized characters compose patchy landscapes of scents, colors, healing properties, shadows, leaf litter, and a thousand other things. I learn to cook with the curry leaves, frying them with onions and mustard seeds before adding pinto beans. A flavor of India, via Costa Rica and uneaten seeds.

*Eugene P. Odum, Ecology and Our Endangered Life-Support Systems (2d ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc., 1993), p.54.

**Curries are adapted to climate zones 9 and 10, and Austin has something like a zone 8 climate. A freeze might zap a sapling if a dry, hot summer doesn't knock it out. If you wanted to introduce curry trees as useful invaders to Austin, it would be best to strew seeds along a creek or a steady stream of wastewater runoff.

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