When people decide to grow fruit, they usually think first of the apple. They’re often surprised to learn that apples are not native to North America—and neither are pears, peaches, cherries, and most other familiar market fruit. These fruits reflect a European heritage. They were brought over by the colonists, and have been improved through many centuries of breeding and selection.
There’s another type of fruit to consider for your home orchard: native fruits. These are fruits that originated here and can be found in the wild. Some of the species have been bred for cultivation, resulting in plants that are easier to grow in the home garden and produce reliably delicious fruit.
Reasons to plant native fruits are much the same as for planting wildflowers and other natives. Natives are often better adapted than exotics and experience fewer pest problems. They can help support native ecosystems. And there’s one more reason: dessert!
The pantry: native fruits for cooking
Before people came to rely so heavily on buying food at the marketplace, many native fruits were very popular. If they weren’t palatable fresh off the bush, they were cooked and made into jams, jellies, pies, or sauces.
Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis, Zones 4 to 9), for instance, were popular in pies, jams, and wine; people ate both the flowers and the purple-black fruits. The shrubs grow 12 feet tall and wide.
Oregon grapeholly (Mahonia aquifolium, Zones 6 to 9) is most often planted as an ornamental for its holly-like evergreen leaves and foaming clusters of yellow flowers. In autumn, the bushes bear dark blue berries that make a nice jam or jelly.
Another ornamental native is clove currant (Ribes odoratum, Zones 4 to 8). This shrub was once planted near doorways so the intense, sweet, spicy aroma from its red-tipped yellow flowers would waft indoors. Those flowers are followed in summer by black berries up to ½ inch across that have a resiny, sweet-tart flavor.
Highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum, Zones 2 to 7) is a good stand-in for American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon, Zones 2 to 6), the familiar cranberry we eat at Thanksgiving. Highbush cranberry tastes and looks very much like American cranberry, but doesn’t need its specialized soil conditions. That said, if you have acidic soil that’s high in humus and stays moist, or if you’re willing to amend a small area with peat moss and sulfur and keep it watered, you can grow American cranberry. American cranberry is borne on a creeping plant with evergreen leaves—edible ground cover, anyone?
As long as you’re creating those special soil conditions, you could also plant lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Zones 2 to 6). Although swooned over by Scandinavians, lingonberry is actually native to much of the Northern Hemisphere. It thrives best in cooler climates. Thepea-sized fruit tastes something like cranberry with less tartness and a tad more sweetness. It’s tasty straight from the plant or cooked into sauces or jams. With evergreen leaves resembling those of boxwood, and a spreading growth habit, the 6-inch-tall plants create an attractive edible ground cover.
The dessert tray: native fruits for eating fresh
The aforementioned native fruits make great jams, relishes, and the like, but some native plants bear what the British call “dessert fruits”—that is, fruits that are delectable plucked right off the plants. They’re also tasty cooked into jams or pies. These fruits are what I’d call the crème de la crème of native fruits.
The blueberry is the greatest native-fruit success story. Deliberate, widespread cultivation of this fruit began only in the last 100 years. That’s probably because the plant has specific soil requirements (very similar to those of the Thanksgiving cranberry). Still, with a little peat, sulfur, organic mulch, and sufficient water, blueberries can grow almost anywhere. (These conditions are very similar to those under which rhododendron, azalea, pieris, and other blueberry relatives thrive.)
When planting blueberries, you’ll need to choose between highbush, lowbush, and rabbiteye blueberries. Rabbiteye (Vaccinium asheii, Zones 5 to 9) varieties are adapted to warmer regions and grow into large, 15-foot-tall bushes. Lowbush blueberries (V. angustifolium, Zones 2 to 8) are attractive, cold-hardy plants that grow only 1 or 2 feet tall and spread by underground stems. Highbush varieties (V. corymbosum, Zones 3 to 7) are adapted to a greater range of climates.The fruits, which are the ones you see fresh on market shelves, grow on bushes 6 to 8 feet tall. So-called “half-highs” are highbush-lowbush hybrids developed mostly for colder regions.
You’ll enjoy looking at your blueberry plants as well as eating their fruits. In spring, the bushes are draped with clusters of small, white, urn-shaped blossoms. The foliage looks healthy all season long, then turns a fiery red in autumn. Stems take on a reddish cast in winter.
To get the fruit, though, you’ll have to foil the birds. The best way to thwart them is to net the bushes, and the best way to net the bushes is to build a walk-in cage around them. This cage needn’t be an eyesore. Picture a rustic enclosure of locust or cedar, for example.
Juneberry (Amelanchier spp., Zones 3 to 9, depending on species), also known as shadbush and serviceberry, is similar to blueberry in appearance yet quite different in flavor. The berries have sweetness and richness similar to sweet cherries, with a hint of almond. The plants, which range from subshrubs to shrubs to small trees, are frequently grown as ornamentals for their white or pink flowers, their red-orange fall color, their attractive bark, and their neat growth habit. In addition to offering good looks and great-tasting fruit, juneberry trees require little pruning, though the shrubs do need the oldest wood periodically cut to the ground to make way for young wood.
The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana, Zones 4 to 9) is native throughout the eastern United States as far north as Pennsylvania, but it can grow and bear fruit over a much wider range. This tree is truly carefree, generally requiring no pruning or insect control. Even deer are not particularly fond of persimmon wood or leaves.
It lacks flamboyant flowers, but its foliage is striking. The drooping, slightly bluish leaves stay clean and fresh-looking throughout the season and sometimes turn hickory yellow in fall. This fruit differs from the more familiar Asian persimmon in being smaller (about golfball-sized), drier, and richer. It’s something like a dried apricot that has been soaked in water, dipped in honey, then sprinkled with a dash of spice.
For the best-tasting American persimmons, don’t plant just any wild or seedling tree. Instead, plant one of the more than two dozen named varieties of this fruit. Wild trees have either male or female flowers, and only the females bear fruit, but if you plant a self-fruitful variety such as ‘Garretson’, ‘Szukis’, or ‘Mohler’, you don’t need a separate male pollinator tree. Another advantage of ‘Szukis’ and ‘Mohler’ is that their fruit ripens early, which is an important consideration in the colder limits of the persimmon’s range. Few fruits taste worse than an unripe persimmon.
Though the native pawpaw (Asimina triloba, Zones 4 to 9) grows in about the same geographic range as the American persimmon, it seems to have tropical aspirations. The pyramidal tree sports leaves that are large and lush, similar to those of avocado. In autumn they turn a beautiful, clear yellow.
The fruits, which look like mangos, are borne singly or in clusters like bananas. For the best-tasting fruit as soon as possible, plant two grafted trees of different varieties for cross-pollination. Both varieties will bear fruit.
Pawpaw flesh is creamy and pale yellow. It tastes like a combination of vanilla custard, banana, mango, avocado, and pineapple. (Those tropical aspirations again!) I describe it as tasting something like crème brulée without the fat and sugar.