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Audubon Living
Passion Fruits
After decades of struggling to grow apples in his backyard, a gardener rediscovers a cornucopia of native and sweet edibles that thrive without sweat and chemicals.

 

Twenty-five years ago I planted a dozen apple trees in my backyard in Ulster County, New York. I was planning to sink my teeth into some of the best apple varieties in existence. From this row of trees, I would enjoy heirlooms, like the tart Esopus Spitzenbergs, one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites, and modern delicacies such as sweet Jonagolds, at their best because I could pick each fruit when its flavor peaked.

But my Edenesque vision had its shortcomings. Apples are beset by a number of pests, especially east of the Rocky Mountains. With no other options, I reluctantly donned a respirator, goggles, and a Tyvek jumpsuit to ward them off with toxic chemicals. When organic treatments to help control some of the major apple pests finally came along, I tried them but quickly discovered that they were not a panacea. Without my astronaut getup, I reaped much smaller har-
vests—sometimes none.

If I had it to do all over again, I might forgo planting labor-intensive apple trees and choose instead what I like to call the “uncommon fruits”—little-known edibles that have been grown and enjoyed in some part of the world at some time in history.

I’ve spent 30 years—including a decade in fruit research with Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture— ferreting out scarce fruits that would be delicious, pest-free, and uniquely flavored Among them are a handful of North American natives that were eaten raw and perhaps cooked in puddings or dried for winter use by Native Americans and also adopted by early colonists, who—the first chance they got—replaced them with the produce of their homelands. These unfamiliar native fruits can be grown to perfection without pesticides, sparing the environment damage from chemicals. In fact, these fruits are so low maintenance that they often thrive on neglect. What’s more, some add value by providing food and habitat for wildlife—if you’re willing to share (see “Bird Buffet,”).

Why aren’t these fruits sitting in supermarket produce bins alongside apples and peaches? The simple answer is that widespread adoption would buck tradition. American senti-
ment for apple pie and the nation’s European roots have encouraged orchards to stick to growing what is most familiar, which just so happens to be the fruits of Eastern Europe—apples, pears, plums, peaches, cherries. Second, some commercial wrinkles, such as the ability to ship and store well, would have to be ironed out. Aesthetics are also a consideration, especially when consumers are used to the “perfect” look of waxed, shiny red apples. But in the back-
yard (and on small farms that sell their produce at road stands and farmers’ markets) none of these things are as important as a fruit’s flavor and pest resistance. Thus, here is a sampling of some of my favorite native uncommon fruits.

 

Pawpaw

Lee Reich

With the pawpaw’s tropical appearance—leaves that are as large and lush as an avocado’s, and fruits that resemble mangos hanging in clusters like bananas—you might never guess this tree can be grown where winter temperatures plummet as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Even the paw-
paw’s flesh evokes images of white sandy beaches rimmed by aquamarine waters: creamy and white like banana with a flavor that might be compared to a congenial mix of vanilla custard, banana, mango, and avocado—which makes it a fine substitute for crème brulée (without the fat and sugar). The tropical charade is revealed only in autumn, when the pawpaw’s leaves turn yellow and drop off the tree.

Pawpaws can be hard to transplant, but once established they are very easy to grow. Although this plant is native through-
out the eastern United States—south of New England, north of Florida, and as far west as Nebraska—it can be grown prac-
tically everywhere. To get the best-tasting fruit in the shortest possible time, plant grafted trees (two different varieties for cross-pollination and fruiting on both). Grafted trees have variety names associated with them, such as Sunflower or Taylor, while nongrafted trees are designated as “seedlings,” or just lack specific names. In northern areas the numbered varieties of the Pennsylvania Golden series (such as Penn-
sylvania Golden #1) are good choices, because they ripen early. In any case, potted trees, rather than bare root ones, are best for planting if they cannot be put into the ground immediately upon receipt in spring.

Pawpaw trees may reach heights of 20 to 25 feet, but they can be kept smaller. Once a pawpaw tree takes hold, it requires little more care than just picking the fruits, which ripen in late summer and fall. Pawpaws soften as they get ripe, often falling to the ground. Beneath my trees, I maintain wood-chip, straw, or leaf mulch, which, besides conserving water and keeping weeds in check, pads the impact of falling fruit. Eat your crop within a couple of days of harvest, or pick them when they are slightly under-ripe (they will keep for a week or two and longer when refrigerated). I halve the fruit and scoop out the delicious creamy flesh with a spoon (the large seeds and skins are inedible). Raccoons, squirrels, and other animals may want to share your crop.

 

American Persimmon

Lee Reich

The American persimmon is another fruit that was once familiar in its native haunts. Along the way it has reaped some bad press from, among others, Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame), who wrote that “when a persimmon is not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awrie with much torment.” In modern terms, I liken the sensation of eating an unripe persimmon to putting a vacuum cleaner in your mouth. Captain Smith saw the error of his ways, going on to state that when a persimmon “is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot.” I would go a step further: It’s more like a wet, dried apricot drizzled with honey and given a dash of spice. Compared with the Asian persimmons often seen in our markets, the American variety is smaller, drier, and richer in flavor.

Despite being native to the east and only as far north as Pennsylvania, the American persimmon can be grown throughout most of the country. The key to a tasty persimmon is cultivating a variety that will finish ripening within the growing season—and resisting the temptation to pick it before it’s ready. Szukis is the best type for northern regions and also has the advantage of not needing to be paired with a separate male pollinator tree. Other good-tasting varieties that do not require males for cross-pollination include Garretson, Killen, and Yates.

Persimmons might not always transplant well, but once established they bear fruit regularly with virtually no care. When the honey-sweet orbs ripen in late summer or fall, the jellylike pulp can barely be contained in the nearly trans-
lucent skin, and the calyx—the green cap to which the stem is attached—separates readily from the fruit. I usually eat persimmons fresh off the tree, but sometimes I use the pulp, with seeds removed, in homemade muffins or beer. (For the recipe, see "
Pick, Mix, and Brew.")

 

Lowbush Blueberry

Lee Reich

Never underestimate the tastiness or many healthful proper-
ties of the uncommon blueberry. Uncommon, you say? I’m talking about the lowbush blueberry, a fruit sometimes featured in pies and canned preserves but strangely unappre-
ciated as edible landscaping, which is unfortunate, because lowbush blueberries are also attractive plants. They spread by underground runners, so I grow them as a decorative, snack-worthy groundcover on a raised bed behind a stone retaining wall near my home. In spring, shoots on the 12- to 18-inch-high plants burst into clusters of dainty flowers, each a nodding white or pinkish bell that looks very much like lily of the valley. All summer the leaves remain fresh and healthy. Then in autumn they ignite in shades of crimson. Even after the leaves have fallen, cold weather causes the stems of some clones to turn a bright red that almost rivals the leaves’ earlier color. Evergreen species of lowbush blueberry have the added benefit of looking lush even in the dead of winter.

Lowbush blueberry thrives best in soils that are very acidic, extremely high in humus, and low in fertility. I recommend creating these conditions by adding a generous bucketful of coir (an organic by-product of the coconut processing indus-
try) to each planting hole. The ideal is to have a soil test for acidity before planting and then, if necessary, to sprinkle pelletized sulfur (available at garden centers), a mined natural mineral, over the ground. Finally, I blanket the ground around the plants with an organic mulch, such as shredded leaves, wood shavings, or pine needles, replen-
ished as necessary so no soil peeks through.

Lowbush blueberries will grow well without pruning but pro-
duce better if all stems are cut back almost to ground level every few years. Since the plants do not bear the season after they are pruned, I cut a different part of the bed each time to keep the blueberries coming year after year.

 

Lingonberry

Lee Reich

The lowbush blueberries near my front door share that bed with lingonberries, another delectable and ornamental native fruit. Usually associated with Scandinavia, the mere mention of lingonberries elicits a misty, faraway look in transplanted Nordics. The evergreen plant is also native to Canada and the northern United States.

Lingonberries are nice companions for my lowbush blue-
berries, their small, glossy green leaves contrasting pleas-
antly with the blueberry’s bluish-green ones in summer and its reddish color in fall. Lingonberry flowers resemble the blueberry’s, only smaller, and the plant also spreads by un-
derground runners to peacefully coexist with the blueberry plants and fill in the bed. The plants are closely related and thrive in the same soil conditions, although lingonberries are somewhat harder to establish.

These berries are as good a mate with blueberries in the kitchen as the plants are out in the garden. The red, pea-sized fruits can be cooked into delicious sauces and jams, and they are tart but nonetheless delicious plucked right off the tiny bushes and popped into your mouth. I’ll often graze from my bed of lowbush blueberries and lingonberries or pick a handful to add to my morning cereal.

 

Wood Strawberry

Lee Reich

Another fruit that graces my cereal—if it doesn’t get eaten before I reach the kitchen—is the wood strawberry, some-
times known by its French moniker fraises de bois. Gardeners occasionally refer to it as the alpine strawberry, but that name relates only to one botanical form of this type of plant that has slightly larger fruits and bears all summer long, not just in spring. Wood strawberries are a fruit of antiquity, the strawberries that were eaten before the advent of the mod-
ern garden strawberry about 300 years ago. (Today’s common variety originated as a chance mating of two other American species—the Chilean strawberry from the Pacific Coast and the eastern Virginian strawberry—in a garden in Brest, France, in the early 18th century.)

I recommend growing wood strawberries in addition to, rather than instead of, modern garden strawberries because their minuscule fruits are too small to satisfy a large appetite or fill the freezer. But what they lack in size they make up for with intense flavor, providing the perfect snack as you’re strolling along the garden path. And that’s just where I grow my wood strawberries; the plants provide decoration and the berries can be conveniently picked. The lacy leaves look delicate, but they are tough against pests and cold. No special conditions are required beyond reasonably good soil and partial shade to full sunlight. For the best flavor, it’s important not to pluck wood strawberries until they are dead ripe.

 

Lee Reich is a garden columnist for the Associated Press and the author of Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden (Timber Press, 2004). His forthcoming book, Luscious Landscaping, With Fruiting Trees, Shrubs, and Vines (Storey Publishing), will be published in January 2009.

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Bird Buffet

“I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs,” wrote the English author Joseph Addison in 1712. Some of the birds flitting through your trees might offer you a song for a taste of the so-called uncommon fruits native to North America. For example, the American persimmon draws a wide variety of avian visitors, from catbirds, robins, and cedar waxwings to mockingbirds and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, says Audubon’s Steve Kress, author of The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds. Lowbush blueberries and lingonberries invite bluebirds, scarlet tanagers, spruce grouse, and ruffed grouse. Red wood strawberries can provide a buffet of tiny fruits for cedar waxwings and ruffed grouse. But if you plant the white variety of wood strawberry, which has a delectable, pineappley flavor, you may find this berry is less appealing to birds. Lee Reich recommends planting both types—bettering the chances that you will still have something to nibble when the grouse get greedy and eat all the red ones.—Rene Ebersole

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Pick, Mix, and Brew
Fruitful recipes from gardener Lee Reich. 

















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