the ripening hormone

Dear Readers,

Sometimes, we meet in the mornings at the Avondale orchard (one of three sites that is part of North Star). We spend those days thinning– snipping off baby fruit so that the trees can devote more energy to producing good fruit. We each take a pear tree, and systematically work branch by branch until every fruit is 8 inches apart from the next. Sometimes we talk while we work– Friday, we played the word game Geography for a while– but usually, we fall into our own rhythms and listen to our Ipods.


For me, the day feels like a very long moment, marked by the sun’s position in the sky. The early morning phase: a bit chilly, the sun glimmering behind trees. The late morning phase: I have finished my first tree, and moved on to the next. This American Life is playing on my Ipod, which means I have probably shed some tears and also laughed out loud. The sun feels lovely on my back. John calls lunch; we all emerge from our trees, blinking sleepily from hours of quiet work. We eat together, sitting in the grass. The sun is full, and it is warm even within the shady trees. I carry a ladder to another tree. The work of thinning takes little mental effort after so much time for my muscles to learn it, and I am free to enjoy my thoughts.


I am not the only one whose day follows the sun. All around me, millions of fruit are producing ethylene, also known as the ripening hormone. Ethylene is one of the few plant hormones that is gaseous; it actually has a slightly sweet taste and smell. As the day gets hotter, the amount of ethylene in production increases. Cold, on the other hand, slows ethylene production. Aside from its activity in the natural world, ethylene is used medically as an anaesthetic, and in small doses, it appeals to the pleasure centers of the brain. At high doses, it can be fatal.

Not all plants produce much ethylene; but pears and apples produce a lot, which is why it’s important to refrigerate them once they’re ripe. When fruit is bruised or damaged in any way, it produces more ethylene as well– so try to eat bruised fruit first.


Have you ever wondered how it’s possible that bananas shipped from Ecuador get to your grocery store on the East Coast, and they’re still green-yellow? Or that tomatoes from California aren’t mushy and moldy by the time they travel all the way here? Most non-local, non-organic grocery store fruits are picked unripe, treated with ethylene-blocking chemicals, and often, treated with ethylene to ripen them at the right time. At high concentrations, ethylene is extremely flammable, so this process is taken seriously! USDA certified organic growers can use ethylene on tropical fruit and citrus, though not on tomatoes.

Thanks to the lovely Aubergine, who requested a post on ethylene. I wish you all a week with at least one sandwich bursting with veggies!

Laura Beth


6 thoughts on “the ripening hormone

  1. Wow! Thanks for the great education – I am learning so much from your blog:) Please – keep it going and growing……

  2. Sounds Idylllic Laura, peaceful and serene – being one with nature and immersing yourself back into that beautiful rhythm.

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