Huge lemon tree among Ellicott City man's rare plant emporium

There's the 15-foot orange tree with its menacing 11/2-inch-long thorns, a bushy affair that sprouted from small seeds like those most of us just spit out. Nearby is a kiwi plant, its aggressive tendrils snaking vertically up a nearby tree. And then there's the ramrod-straight, 100-foot-tall sequoia that appears happily unaware that its natural home is in California.

Welcome to the Ellicott City property of Donald Dunn, where the uncommon is commonplace and unusual species thrive in blissful ignorance of the fact that they're spectacular misfits beating long odds.

"You may find it hard to believe what you're about to see," cautioned Dunn with a smile before leading a visitor on a tour of the 1-acre property where he's lived since 1965.

In addition to his star attractions, there are apple, peach and cherry trees and plots of strawberries, rhubarb, currants and black raspberries. He also plants tomatoes, Swiss chard, lettuce, cabbage and onions.

But the biggest drawing card of all, and the holder of a special place in Dunn's heart, is the 70-year-old Ponderosa lemon tree that holds court in an 8-by-22-foot greenhouse behind his Triadelphia Road home.

It's an arresting sight, with its abundance of bright yellow, edible fruit the size of small cantaloupes dangling among glossy green leaves. The thick-skinned globes begin to appear in March, and Dunn estimates that he picks six or seven bushels of lemons each season, each fruit weighing a pound or two.

This particular specimen results from a hybrid of a lemon and a citron, and was originally (and accidentally) bred in the late 1880s in Hagerstown. It is so content on Dunn's property that it is taking up every inch of available space by assuming the shape of its host shelter.

Visitors must duck under a fruit- and flower-laden archway to step inside the greenhouse before straightening up to gawk at the way the specimen has adapted so successfully to life in a decidedly cramped and un-tropical locale.

"Quite a few people find a way to succeed at growing tropical plants, usually by bringing them indoors for the winter," said Jon Traunfeld, extension specialist with the University of Maryland's Research and Education Center on Homewood Road. "They're tender plants and physically it can be tough to do.

"But obviously this is an extraordinary lemon tree by its age and its size," he said of the tree grown from a cutting. "It's quite a novelty."

What endears the tree to Dunn is a bit more complicated than its glorious appearance and goes back 78 years. to when he was in kindergarten.

"This lemon tree wouldn't exist without my fears about my [learning] deficiencies," said Dunn, an 83-year-old widower and retired mechanical engineer.

When he was 5 and growing up in Sharon, Pa., he was learning how to cross the street at a traffic signal with his classmates when he realized the red, yellow and green lights they were supposed to be heeding all looked the same to him. So he took his cue when to cross by watching other students instead, unwilling to acknowledge that he was colorblind.

"I disguised it and I hid it," he recalled. "I felt stupid, but I decided there must be some subjects that I could get good at."

He made it his mission at that tender age to concentrate on mastering reading, "since it became apparent to me that that's how you learn."

When he was 6 or 7, Dunn picked up a biography of Luther Burbank, the pioneering American horticulturist, and read about genetics and crossbreeding plants. The book, written about a man with only an elementary-school education, ignited in Dunn a determination to overcome obstacles. It became a path from which he's never veered.

"It just made a lot of sense to me," he said of the book, so much so that he was inspired to start a garden in his family's backyard soon after reading it.

As a reward for caring for a neighbor's cats when he was 13, he was given a lemon tree cutting from Florida. He nurtured that gift into his near-constant companion of seven decades, moving it with him wherever he went.

He never took a hiatus from his love affair with gardening, either. After he was drafted into the Army in 1951 during the Korean War, he dug a plot at the back of the military base where he was assigned in Germany and grew native plants.

His early drive to prove himself paid off after high school, Dunn said. Though he "always wanted to be a farmer," he earned an engineering degree at Youngstown State University in Ohio and a master's degree at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

He decided against pursuing a farmer's life after marrying a woman he met in Germany and becoming intent on supporting a family, he said. They had five children and enjoyed a happy marriage until her death three years ago, he said.

She made the most of the fruits of Dunn's labors, he said, by baking the by-products of his green thumb into pies, tortes and other dishes.

But while he enjoyed the desserts and other fare created from his garden, his interest has developed into much more than a hobby.

"I'm serious when I say this — I feel an obligation to all of these plants," he said. "It's the same type of obligation I feel for my kids."

How could he not feel protective, he said, when gardening — symbolized by his magnificent Ponderosa lemon tree — was the direct result of the perseverance that saved his fragile self-esteem so long ago?

A former substitute teacher at Mount View Middle School in the 1990s, he loves children and says he hopes his academic success can inspire students who have a difficult time academically.

As he walked visitors to their cars to say good-bye, he stopped to point out the unusual white violets growing near his driveway. It's a variety he created by using a paintbrush to cross-pollinate two kinds of flowers.

He plans to keep gardening as long as he can, he said, adding, "I have too many interests to sit still in a chair."

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