In the 1934 comedy film “It’s a Gift,” the impatient Mr. Fitchmueller storms W.C. Fields’ grocery story in search of ten pounds of kumquats. Service is slow, leaving Mr. Fitchmueller to fume. “KUMQUATS!” he shouts at intervals. “Where are my KUMQUATS?” “What about my KUMQUATS?”
Watching this film as a teen, I didn’t know what kumquats were; but it’s an abrupt and eccentric-sounding word, one no doubt chosen for that reason. I have trouble remembering certain words; the “k” word is among them. But all I have to do is visualize Mr. Fitchmueller’s angry face and suddenly, it’s there: KUMQUATS!
I was probably 50 before I ate my first kumquat. Nagami kumquats, the ones most commonly available, are small ovoid citrus fruit the size of olives. One eats both the sweet skin and the sour/bitter flesh together. You spit out the two or three seeds as best you can. Or just crunch them with your mighty molars.
I find the contrast in flavors delicious. Kumquats are great eaten whole, or sliced thin and tossed into salads.
We had sunny space in our front yard that wasn’t being used for much. Eventually we decided to put in a pair of kumquat trees. They’re hardy, not large, and were reputed to be easy to care for. Kumquat trees are tropical plants that thrive in the heat, but can survive the cold as well.
I talked to a nurseryman. He was not optimistic. The trees would grow; fruit was another matter.
“You’re only a mile from the coast,” he reminded me. “Even if the tree set fruit, it won’t be very sweet.” We live in a sunny seaside resort town that often turns cool and grey. Best of both worlds in my book; but I learned that kumquats needs couple of weeks of warm weather to set fruit, and even hotter weather to set sweet fruit.
Our “hot” weather historically is not that hot. Low 80s. In summer only the hottest days don’t see at least a whisp of fog. If we break 90 or 100, the heat won’t last long.
We went ahead anyway; our preferred spot gets a lot of sun and reflected heat. A landscaper friend made a raised bed to get the trees above the slow-draining clay soil. I got a couple of tiny Nagamis from a nursery. In they went.
And they have spent three years doing… not much. Growing a bit taller, very slowly. Taking their sweet time. Just once, one of them put out… one bud. We should have listened to the nurseryman.
I feed the kumquat trees. I water them. They make new branches. The leaves look sometime odd, sometimes not. Meanwhile, the nearby succulents grow like crazy.
And then, a few days ago, both trees broke out in hundreds of flower buds. Simultaneously. A few buds have already become small, white flowers.
We figured it out: the edge of a massive heat dome had covered our cool slice of the California coast a couple of weeks ago for the very first time. Inland areas sizzled at 105 to 120; out on the coast we were “merely” in the low-to-high ‘90s and more for over a week. That’s unheard of here. But now it’s been heard, and it’ll no doubt be heard again. And again. Here and everywhere.
And the tropical kumquat trees will love it. They’ll bear fruit, and I bet it’ll be sweet from the heat. So global warming, heat domes, ocean rise, environmental degradation, all that: they’ll bring us regular crops of kumquats from now on, a consolation prize that by its very nature is bittersweet. And all I can say to that, with some dismay, is:
Well, at least we got our cool, grey city back, for now. We will enjoy.