Because of the lack of rain all year until now (when the tomatoes would rather be dry, thank you), a ritual has emerged at this household, wherein I get up before the princesses (my wife and daughter), prepare coffee, tea, and milk, and head out to water the crops and those plants in the yard that are not accustomed to rainless springs or whose roots are not yet deep enough to find moisture in the ground. Angela and Mara usually follow with their beverages a few minutes later, and we water, inspect, and play, each according to his or her interest and ability.
Angela watches the pumpkins particularly closely. There are only three plants, but each of them has put out fifteen feet of laterally creeping vegetation on thick vines whose leaves unfold to a foot or so across and whose wiry tendrils have coiled around sticks and lifted them into the air. Along the length of these vines male and female flowers bloom, but the males start emerging first, in June, loitering around like boys do, waiting for their opportunity (and they have only one thing on their minds!). The females emerge later in the year, and there are fewer of them. Each flower opens for just a few hours one morning, then shrivels up and dies. That brief span is all the chance that flower has of mating. For the males, the prospect is grim. Most open, find that they are too early or too late, and then die. It’s kinda sad, really. The females have a better chance, since there are likely to be one or two or three males about when they open, but then there’s the little issue of mobility. The flowers cannot get to each other. Fix’d upon the vine, these Capulets are held forever apart from their multiple Montagues.
Thank God for pollen, which is transferable, the medium of veggie sex. On the other hand, nature’s way of moving pumpkin pollen from male to female flowers requires the intermediary agency of bees, who unfortunately, and despite all appearances, have little interest in pollination. Pollen gets on them while they’re in there scraping up nectar, the juice that lures them inside, and if the plant is lucky, the bee visits a male flower and then a female, in that order, before heading off to other gardens. Possibly because of this dichotomy between the bee’s purpose in collecting nectar and the plant’s purpose in dusting the bee with pollen, Mara calls this process “nectarating”. She frequently points out bees busy in the garden and says “that bee is nectarating that flower.”
It has been Angela’s experience that in our neighborhood, the bees don’t do a very good job. She learned after the first year that she has to pollinate the pumpkins by hand. This means that she has to pay close attention to which flowers are about to bloom, and when a female opens she has to be there to take the stamens from a male flower and rub them all around the pistils of the female flower (which happen to be orange and curled up like the staves of a barrel, exactly how the fruit of the plant looks when it becomes a pumpkin — cool?)
One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, Mara and I went out to water and inspect and play. Angela was helping with the music in church that morning and had to leave the house an hour earlier than usual. The kid and I noticed that one of the female flowers had opened. We knew it would be shriveled up by the time church was done, so we decided to operate without Angela. Mara was excited to show me how, since she had seen Angela do this. There were three males available. I picked the first one, removed its petals, and serviced the female flower with its stamens. Mara coached. I then picked another one and let Mara have a go, then I did the last one.
This flower did bear a fruit, but that week of record high tempertatures in Seattle followed immediately, and all the pumpkins in the area took a hit of stunting heat. The one we “nectarated” is about the size of a cantaloupe and seems to want to stay that way. However, one that emerged earlier in the season has gotten to a good size. Angela is looking forward to harvesting this one come Halloween. Every time she got a pumpkin to grow this big at our old house it was stolen just before All Hallows.