The Book of Leviticus mandates, “And you shall take on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (23:40)
The etrog (citron) is that “fruit of beautiful trees,” one of the four species used at the Jewish festival of Sukkot.
About seven years ago, well after the fall festivals were over, the box holding my etrog was still sitting on the living room coffee table. I pondered what to do with it. The previous two years, the ladies of the Sisterhood had made marmalade from fruit they had collected from congregants post-holiday. Having tasted the sickly sweet concoction once, I knew I did not want to go that route. (The marmalade jar sat in my refrigerator, uneaten, for three years.)
So, what to do?
The idea popped into my head to scoop out the seeds and plant them. Could they possibly grow? Wouldn’t it be cool to have etrog trees as the, er, genesis of my own little biblical garden? So, I planted the seeds in a single pot.
Within a couple months, we had three seedlings. After another few months, it was clear that the time had come to separate the plants into individual pots. I threw out the runt of the litter and repotted the two hardiest seedlings, each at this point about ten inches tall. I then placed them in symmetrically opposed spots in the sunroom, about twelve feet apart.
This is where my story takes an unusual, but absolutely true, turn.
Within a week, one of the plants had begun to shrivel and turn brown, while the other was still green and healthy. I couldn’t understand. After all, they each got the same amount of sun, water, and attention. So, I brought them both onto the kitchen windowsill where I could keep an eye on my charges. After about a week, the brown and shriveled plant had begun to revive.
But it wasn’t just that the sick tree was re-greening. Neither of them was growing toward the sun, as is the habit of every other plant I have ever owned. They were growing toward each other, arching their tender, narrow stems in a manner suggesting that they were whispering in a secret language, reminiscent of twins who had once shared a crib. And, they remained that way for the next year.
The etrog trees are now over six feet tall and doing quite well, their leaves emitting a heavenly citrus fragrance. They have grown branches (and sharp thorns!) and have been repotted again. Like siblings, one is beginning to grow taller, while the other is a bit stouter, and both have to be pruned yearly so that their tops don’t scrape the ceiling. They no longer need to stand right next to each other night and day, but I hesitate to move them too far apart.
Snooping around the internet, I have learned that it should take about seven or eight years for the trees to produce fruit, if planted from seed. As if teasing me, twice a year for the past two years, creamy white flowers with yellow pistils and stamens have blossomed. While I don’t really expect anything to happen while they sit indoors during the New England winter, I take them outside every summer urging the bees to do their pollination thing.
This may just be the year. Stay tuned.