When I lived in Charlottesville, I used to love exploring around the fringes of the town on the Rivanna Trail. On one occasion I was scouting out my next jogging route and noticed a huge, mysterious house through the woods on top of the hill behind the University of Virginia (UVA) campus. I asked around and no one seemed to know who lived there or whether it had any connection to the rest of the town. Even on Google Maps, it somehow reminded me of the kind of place Scooby Doo and the gang would encounter a spooky monster.

Having moved away from Charlottesville, I forgot about the mysterious house until recently when I had a strange dream about it. This inspired me to do a bit of research. Based on gisweb.albemarle.org, I found out the current owner Lewis Mountain LLC obtained from previous owner Everett Lee Campbell (an MD in TX?) in 2010, who inherited it from Julia Courtenay Campbell. Here is her obituary. It seems their application to have it recognized as a historic landmark was successful. This also shows the house was designed in 1909 and built in 1912. And through that I found a couple of fascinating articles describing the history of the house:

The process of learning more about the idiosyncrasies of our local surroundings is such a delight. It reminds me of William Blake’s poem, “To see a world in a grain of sand…”. I hope the folks living there don’t mind my curiosity. I would not wish for anyone to intrude upon their personal sanctuary. However, such an impressive structure, in such an unusual location, deserves to have its story told.

If you live in or near Charlottesville, come to the Haiti Earthquake Relief concert event this Saturday!

Love 4 Haiti
Saturday January 23, 2010
5pm – midnight

Random Row Books (click for map)
315 W. Main St (Main St and McIntire Rd)
Admission $5

Performers include Taiwanese surf rock band “Dzian!” and a host of others. For more details, see the official press release, or see the facebook event page.

And, if you have doubts about whether this will really make a difference, consider that even critics of long-term foreign aid such as Dr. William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo are advocating for immediate relief (according to the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof). Furthermore, cash makes a bigger impact than donations of physical goods or volunteering in a crisis of this kind.

My favorite fruit in the world is Guanábana (Annona muricata, aka “Soursop”).

Guanábana / Annonaceae fruit

A very large guanábana fruit in a Colombian tienda. Photo Credit: jjrestrepoa

Native to Latin America, it also grows in tropical Southeast Asia and Africa. In the Philippines it is called “Guayabano”. The first time I tried it was in a smoothie at the Café Havana in Greenbelt Mall, Makati. Since I returned to the US, I have vainly attempted to find the fruit in grocery stores and Asian markets, although I did get to try it again on a recent trip to Puerto Rico. Right when I was about to give up, however, I discovered that another South American fruit, the cherimoya, is in the same genus and is more widely available (at least here in Charlottesville). Furthermore, one of my coworkers shared with me that there is a fruit called pawpaw found in North American forests that is in the same family. Actually, it’s the tree with the gigantic, deciduous leaves. Kentucky State University has a major pawpaw research program, and offers a great general information site. Here’s our exchange, as well as some comments from my college botany professor:

[ME] I looked up pawpaw and it is indeed in the Annonaceae family. In fact, the genus to which it belongs, Asimina, is one of the only temperate representatives from the family. Most of the other edible fruits in that family are from the tropical genus Annona. Annonaceae, along with Magnoliaceae and the nutmeg family Myristicaceae, are all very closely related in that they are from a “primitive” (ancient) lineage of flowering plants, lacking well defined petals or sepals and with leaves characterized by a “ranalean” odor of aromatic, essential oils when crushed (botanically, they are part of the order Magnoliales).

[STEVE, my coworker] Incidentally, there are lots of pawpaw trees around the lower parts of the Old Rag hike, but I haven’t yet seen one with fruit.  I have seen them with fruit near Sugar Hollow reservoir and, as I mentioned, a few weeks ago [another coworker] brought one in that he picked near the Monticello trail.

[DR. KNOX, my professor] Yes, I’ve had cherimoya in Peru, and it is delicious.  It’s been so long since I’ve eaten it and I only had one infructescence, so I don’t remember much, other than that it was sweet and similar to pawpaw.  In Cherimoya, the many pistils in each flower enlarge until they are packed tightly together to give an accessory fruit that looks like a grenade.  I’ve seen other Annonaceae growing in the wild in Panama and Costa Rica. As for pawpaw, fruit production seems to vary a lot from population to population.  For example, I have watched the many pawpaw tree on our back campus for years, and though they form many flowers, I scarcely ever see fruit. I’ve  wondered if they lack the appropriate genotypes to set seed and fruit, or if conditions for pollination, fertilization, or fruit development are not very good there.  But then downstream about a mile along the Maury the trees usually do produce  fruit.

So, why isn’t this fruit more widely cultivated and consumed? According to the Christian Science Monitor, the fruit’s rapid spoilage rate, poisonous seeds, carrion-fly pollination mechanism doomed its prospects for commercialization. Nevertheless, I hope you all won’t hesitate to try one of the delicious fruits from this fascinating plant family if you get the chance- there might even be one in your own back yard (just omit the seeds, like a watermelon). I think I’ll go eat one right now!