A Guide To Tropical Seed Saving

I am a keeper of seeds. My kitchen counter, the center console in my car, my messy writing desk—all are host to a collection of seeds, strange treasures scattered like marbles that have escaped their velvet pouch. My backyard is too small to hold monstrous mamey trees or wily sapote saplings, but throwing these seeds into the trash seems criminal: all that energy and pure potential, lost.

As a four year old, I insisted on playing doctor with the boy next door. I’d make him lie down, then I’d lift his shirt and peer into his pants—a routine check-up. During my Barbie years, my dolls were naked more often than not. Barbie and Ken would kick their kids out of the house so they could kiss in their plastic kitchen, their bodies pressed up against each other, making smacking noises.
I wasn’t exactly sure what they were doing, but I’d felt the strange tingle between my legs when I peered between my parents’ fingers as they covered my eyes during the part of the movie that was not for little girls to see.

In the past, farmers worked the land in tune with the phases of the moon. They aligned their tasks with the crescent moon, harvest moon, waning gibbous. The new moon was a time for sowing seeds in moist soil, its darkness a perfect time for reflection, renewal, rebirth.

I was ashamed by my first period, that rust stain on flowered panties. I knew it was coming, had heard all about it. And I wanted to hide it, this most intimate moment. Keep it to myself. I didn’t tell my mother or even my best friend. To me, it was not something to be proud of, not something worth sharing.
Or maybe it was protectiveness and not shame that kept me quiet. It was mine, after all, and no one else’s.

In the tropics, everything is thick with fertility. Things want to grow: vines cover trees; limbs break from the weight of fruit; blossoms erupt from cracked streets, invading like a rogue tide creeping up from the sea. Walk down the street in Quito or San José and you’ll find lovers draped on benches, their fingers, legs and tongues entwined. Public parks are more private than the family home, and most young people live with their families until they are married.

“Boys only want one thing.”
This was my father’s song, the litany he repeated, again and again, when I asked him for permission to go to a party, or the movies, or a friend’s house to work on a group project.
“They only want one thing from you.”

Tomato seeds have a protective coating so they won’t sprout inside the fruit. Since it is such a moist environment, the biology of tomatoes prevents the seeds from mistaking the tomato heart for wet soil. It takes a fermentation process in order to make tomato seeds viable for sprouting. First, you squeeze the tomato seeds into a jar and add water. The coating of the seeds makes them buoyant; but within a few days, the seeds will sink to the bottom and leave a layer of scum coating the surface of the water.

I was still in middle school. A friend of a friend was hosting her birthday party at Knights of Columbus. My mother saw the line out the door when she pulled up and waffled about dropping us off; my friend and I were in matching mini-skirts with scooped-neck tank tops made of something spandex-like. We convinced her we’d be fine, that all our friends were inside. She slipped a quarter into my platform shoe and let us out into the night.
The dank basement had been transformed into a makeshift club, with a DJ spinning records in one corner and long lines snaking out of the women’s bathroom. The music throbbed and I could hear the blood pulsing in my ears. My eyes tried to adjust to the smoke-filled darkness, tried to make out the figures around me and find someone I knew. Couples surrounded me, their bodies humid with passion. I saw my friend Di pushed up against a wall by some guy, one of his hands in her wild curls and the other up her skirt. He was no one that I recognized.

When I moved back to Miami after living in Massachusetts for six years, I carried with me a box full of my favorite seeds. In my new yard, beneath a mango tree and wiry coconut palms, I set to work building garden beds and prepping the sandy soil.
The first seeds I planted were Space Spinach, a variety of heart-shaped greens with a satisfying crunch. I watered them every evening, long after the sun’s heat had gone, keeping track of their steady growth. I watched the sprouts push through the soil, impatient to pick fresh spinach for my omelets and salads, as I had done in the gardens I kept in the Pioneer Valley. But about a week and a half into the growing process, I came home to find my sprouts shooting straight up towards the sky, a bed of leggy stems. They’d skipped the leafy phase and gone straight to seed.
The heat was too much for them to handle.

My friends and I were too young to be in a club. We tried to stick together, but guys with blow-out haircuts and diamond stud earrings surrounded us, grinding their hips into ours. We tossed our hair, laughed, adjusted our skin-tight skirts. Some of them tried to force their tongues into our mouths, but I always turned away.

Some seeds need convincing.

My first real kiss—besides Spin the Bottle and Seven Minutes (or seconds) in Heaven—was with the new kid. We were in eighth grade and Alex had just moved to Miami from France. We rollerbladed to the park near my house and sat on the coral rocks, his arm around my waist. I let his tongue explore my mouth. It was a lot to figure out at first—how to put all those moving parts together—but I got the hang of it soon enough.
We spent hours on the phone after school, talking about the things thirteen year olds talk about. One night, Alex three-way called me with his best friend from Paris. I tried to keep up with their rapid-fire French, and when they asked me if I liked to baiser, I said yes. Their hoots and howls of laughter confused me. To me, a baiser had always been a kiss.
A quick search in the dictionary showed me that the noun and the verb had very different definitions. Indeed, a baiser meant an innocent kiss. But the verb baiser meant something else altogether. “To fuck,” the dictionary said matter-of-factly. My cheeks burned as the boys continued chatting on the line, laughing about something else I had missed.

While making a fruit salad, I admire the oblong wooden pit that sits nestled in the coral flesh of a mamey, or the handful of black marbles hidden inside a black sapote. But before long, these seeds—no matter how strong and beautiful they are—shrivel up. Without the presence of soil and water, their insides become hollow and empty. Gone is the possibility of a sprout, a leaf, a flower, a fruit.
A gardener like me should know better; the only way to keep seeds viable is to plant them, year after year.

When I was a high school freshman, my father caught me sitting in a dark car with a boy named David. He was dropping me off after our shift at the children’s hospital where we volunteered as candy stripers; our job was to push the snack cart down antiseptic hallways and pour cups of watered-down coffee for weary parents.
We were only talking in the dark car, about our favorite movies maybe; but still, my father called David a motherfucker and told him to never come near me again. David obeyed.
A few weeks later, my best friend lost her virginity. It would be another decade for me, but when I finally had sex for the first time, it was on a tiny island with a sculptor who spoke the language of my ancestors. His name was also David.

Bananas trees grow in clumps. They only give fruit once, and by the time they ripen, the next tree is heavy with green fruit. Seedlings called “pups” grow alongside their parents, emerging from the dark soil without fanfare. Since they produce no seeds, the only way to grow a banana tree is to dig up a pup and plant it elsewhere, where it will begin a family of its own.

In college, I stood by my friends’ sides as they got IUDs inserted, holding their hands while they cried in pain. But I did not get one myself. I had no reason to. I was not having sex, and the possibility of it lay too far in the future to plan for it.
This was a world that I was not privy to, the world of men and seed.
It’s interesting to me now, the unmentionable shame that was wrapped up in this exclusion. One by one, I watched my friends join the club, until I was the only one still holding onto my V-card. I stayed quiet during conversations about sexual positions, lube preferences, and Kegel exercises. For someone as loud-mouthed as myself, it felt strange to have nothing to say, to wish to blend into the background and go unnoticed.

“What’s that?” my roommate asked, cowboy boots and Southern drawl.
“It’s a baby coconut palm,” I said, picking up the brown orb and showing her the way the green stem had sprouted from the wrinkled wooden skin.
I explained to her how coconuts fall from the tree and if no one picks them up, the water inside turns to soft flesh, and then to hard flesh, and finally, into a stone seed. I told her how a coconut will sit patiently, waiting for the summer rains to soak the ground beneath it so that it can begin life again. Some of them will shrivel up in the absence of water, their insides hollow as a drum.
This was one of the lucky ones.

I have read that women’s menstruation cycles used to align with the moon, flowing from the womb when the moon was but a dark shadow in the night sky.
These days, women’s connection to our celestial being has weakened in a world full of stimulation and disorder. Our natural rhythms are harder to hold onto with so many interruptions, although some of us still try.
Each month, on the new moon, I sit around a fire with a group of women. In the darkness, we take stock of our inner landscape. What is growing? What needs nurturing? What is missing?

The tree of life sprouts from all its nodes without needing sunlight or water or even earth. I stick a leaf into a book and set it back on the shelf. Months later, I find the withered leaf with hundreds of tendrils sprouting from each node, reaching madly towards the world.

My first sexual experiences took place far from home: sailing school, summer camp, study abroad. These moments of heat brought me pleasure, but also confusion. I was surprised by the way my body’s primal instincts took over, leaving me breathless with desire. And yet, there was always a kernel of fear in my gut, forcing resistance.
While volunteering at a nature reserve in Ecuador for a summer, a forest guide made of mystery and muscle strummed love songs on his guitar. He lured me to his bed on my last night where our bodies rubbed against one another, twisting in the sheets until the sun rose and it was time for me to leave. Later, when speaking to another woman volunteer, I learned he had pulled a similar stunt with her. I was glad I hadn’t let him inside me.
Then there was the Brit in the south of Spain who was on his way to the southern tip of Africa on his motorbike. We met on the roof of my hostel and had a week together, wandering through the dusty streets of Granada, stumbling into gypsy caves and tapas bars. We spent sweaty nights in the apartment he was renting, and even though he was the first man to give me an orgasm, we didn’t go all the way.
By then, I had waited so long. I couldn’t give it away to just anyone.

I save the tops of pineapples, stick them into glasses of water until I see the first root hairs emerge. Then, I make a little hole somewhere in the garden, alongside the fence or beneath a bougainvillea bush, and plant it.
It’s best to forget about a growing pineapple. Let the spiders spin cobwebs on its long leaves. It will be years before the fruit appears, but when it does, watch the way it widens and blooms a bit more every day, one step closer to being ready.

The sculptor I gave my virginity to climbed trees to shake down ripe fruit. I was a visitor to his country, and when I pointed to an island on the map, he took me there. On this island, we met a family and the family insisted we stay with them. Their house had a porch where the tide licked the cement twice a day. On this porch, where the ocean painted a palette of glowing coals at sunset, this man played songs for me on his guitar, which is the only thing we had brought with us besides a box of wine and a tent we didn’t ended up using. The family had a guesthouse and in this wooden shack, I lost my virginity. I was twenty-four.
What made this the right time? What made him the one? Was it the paint in his hair, or the silky way he spoke my name? Was it the soothing sounds of the sea outside our window? Was it the wooden worlds he created with his hands that convinced me to give myself to him?
When I came back home from my trip, my moon did not arrive on schedule. My body was adjusting from the traveling, I reasoned with myself. It was only a few days late. I put off taking a pregnancy test.
Soon, though, my rationalities faded. Of course the first man I slept with would impregnate me.
I let myself slip into the silver lining. I suppose this meant I was destined to move back to Costa Rica and sleep beneath banana trees with my honey-tongued lover, our groans blending in with the grunts of howler monkeys swinging in the trees above us. I could live with this fate, I thought as I sat on the toilet and ripped open the pregnancy test.

I slide the blade of my knife into the heart of the mamey, making an incision in its rough, tan skin. I turn the fruit in my hands to make a clean cut around its circumference. I pull apart the two halves, revealing coral flesh. Tucked inside are not one but two oblong seeds, shiny as varnished mahogany. I separate them from the soft center, admiring their polished sheen. Half of the seed is hard wood, and the other half resembles the veiny skin of an organ, only tougher. They are so clearly alive, thin threads escape the wooden center, spreading like fingers trying to get out of a cage that has become too confining for this growing mass. Lured by the moist fruit that surrounds them, flesh-colored tendrils reach out from the wooden shell like an octopus prying itself free. One white vine is more pronounced than the others—the beginnings of new life.

On a moonless night, I leave the warmth of the fire and disappear into the dark. Walking through the grass, my feet are soon wet with dew. I squat in the field and slide the menstrual cup from between my thighs, offering my blood to the land. My body is having a ceremony of its own, shedding the lining of my uterus, releasing liquid life force. I am in awe of this red river that holds in its cells the potential for bones, beauty, breath.
I watch the stain bloom in the dirt; I imagine the nutrients seeping into the soil, feeding the roots of the mango tree. There are many ways to give life on this earth.

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