As I was weaving in and out of the vegetables in the White House garden in September, on a tour with the Association of Food Journalists, a small tree planted in a pot caught my eye.
Like everything else in the garden, it was labeled for easy identification: "Papaya."
"How odd," I thought at the time. "A papaya tree in D.C.? Must ask why it's here."
Then the tour, led by White House executive chefs Cris Comerford and Bill Yosses, moved on to look at the corn and squash off in the corner. I turned my attention to a bird house on the perimeter of the garden. Could it be a bluebird house? (It was actually a security camera disguised as a bird house.) Trailing behind the chefs, distracted by the occasional bee from the nearby White House hive, I continued to snap photos and took notes and, before long, the tour was over.
Not until I was tweeting about the garden later in the day did I remember the tree. (No live tweeting is allowed on the White House grounds for security reasons.) One of my photos showed the tree in the distance. "WH garden found in corner of South Lawn, includes seeds from Thomas Jefferson plants. Papaya tree at right," I noted on Twitter.
Then a direct message on Twitter stopped me: "It's a fig tree in the WH garden BTW."
Oh no. How could I make such a mistake?
When I returned to Minneapolis, I frantically read through the "American Garden," the new book by Michelle Obama on the White House garden and the nation's community gardens, searching for a mention of papayas. There was nothing, though there's a description of a fig tree now in the White House garden that came from the seeds of a tree Thomas Jefferson planted at his home at Monticello. I searched my photographs for any other shots that could verify what I thought was the papaya tree. Again, nothing. Doubt lingered. Perhaps I did confuse a label for a fig tree with that for a papaya, though even on a distracted day that sounded uncharacteristically careless of me.
Way too out of character, in fact. I called my buddy who had accompanied me on the trip, Nancy Stohs, food editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to see if she had, by chance, photographed the tree.
She had. The proof was in the photo. The papaya tree was not only in the garden, but it was full of fruit.
Still, why would there be a papaya tree in the garden, which otherwise featured fruits and vegetables found in nontropical gardens: pumpkins and chiles, kale, tomatoes and blueberries.There had to be a story behind the papaya.
I sent emails to Washington, D.C., where I was eventually directed to the appropriate -- but anonymous -- administrative source.
The papaya tree, in fact, has been in the White House garden since summer 2011. It was placed there in a pot -- presumably because D.C. is not a tropical climate -- because the National Park Service thought it would be "interesting to have in the garden." The park service cares for the grounds of the White House, which includes the garden. The tree is brought inside the White House during the winter.
In the summer of 2011, the papaya tree had many flowers but no fruit. In 2012, there was plenty of fruit, as the photograph shows.
Case closed. Life can go on. There are home-grown papayas at the White House. My reporting skills are intact.
For more on the White House garden (and the bee hive, security camera and executive chefs), read this earlier story.