Take a walk through the woods in many parts of the country in coming months and you may find some tasty fruits dangling from the branches of wild trees.
Some of these trees are also available through nurseries because they are such ideal landscape plants, naturally blending with their surroundings to provide beauty as well as food.
Native tree fruits are rugged plants, usually able to thrive with little care. Some people are surprised to learn that apples, peaches, cherries and most other common tree fruits are not native. Unlike these common tree fruits, which generally require rigorous attention to insect and disease problems, native tree fruits are rarely bothered by pests.
Native fruits have long been part of the diet of raccoons, possums and birds, so you might be forced to share your harvest with these and other animals. My experience, though, has been that once these trees get some size to them, they yield enough to satisfy winged, four-legged and two-legged creatures alike.
Native fruits also are easy to prune. In their youth, they need only enough pruning to shape them into a sturdy framework of well-positioned main branches. With age, these plants require little or no pruning. Occasional dead or wayward branches need to be cut away, but what’s required is nothing like the combination of science and art required to prune, for example, an apple tree.
Like any plant, native fruit trees grow well only if given a suitable site. They bear the best crops in full sun, yet will grow well and bear some fruits even in partial shade. Especially the first season, give them the same care you would any other young plant, keeping weeds at bay and watering when necessary.
Here are four of my favorite native fruits:
Pawpaw has also been called the Hoosier banana, the Michigan banana, the whatever-state-it-grows-in banana. It is native throughout the East, as far west as Nebraska. The fruit tastes similar to banana, with some vanilla custard, mango and pineapple mixed in. The texture is smooth and creamy, also banana-like, except for the inedible, lima-bean-size seeds in the flesh. The medium-size tree has a pyramidal form and long, lush green leaves that turn a clear yellow in autumn. Although pawpaw looks and tastes tropical, it can grow anywhere that winter temperatures stay above about minus 20 degrees!
Juneberries are native from coast to coast. Juneberry is commonly planted as an ornamental, primarily for its blossoms — white or reddish, and opening early in the season — and for its leaves, which turn vibrant shades of purple, orange and yellow in autumn. The fruits are the size of blueberries and usually dark blue, but that’s where blueberry and juneberry part company. Juneberry fruits are sweet and juicy, with the richness of cherries and a hint of almond.
Mulberry fruits resemble those of blackberry in shape, but range in color from deep black to red to lavender to pure white. Fruits on wild trees often are syrupy sweet, endearing them especially to children. The best varieties, such as Illinois Everbearing, have a refreshing dash of tartness. Illinois Everbearing, like many of the wild mulberry trees you may find, are actually hybrids of our native red mulberry with the white mulberry, which was introduced from China over 150 years ago for raising silkworms. Mulberries are native to the East, but would do well over most of the country.
American persimmon is a large native tree that yields fruits the size, shape and color of small tomatoes. The fruits are like dried apricots that have been soaked in water, dipped in honey and given a dash of spice. Fruits on wild trees are often puckery, either because that’s just the way they are or because they have not ripened. Your tree can bear sweet fruit if you plant a variety that is known to have delicious flavor and to be capable of ripening fruits within your growing season. Good-tasting varieties include Dollywood, Early Golden, Garretson and, especially for northern regions, Szukis and John Ricks.
Persimmon trees grow about 50 feet tall and have drooping branches whose bluish-green leaves turn yellow in fall. On some plants, the bright fruits hang on into winter, festooning the bare branches like Christmas ornaments. Don’t harvest persimmon fruits until they are fully colored and mushy soft.
Like the other fruits mentioned, ripe persimmons are delicious fresh, as well as cooked in pies, breads, cookies and cakes. American Indians used to make an alcoholic beverage by fermenting persimmons and honeylocust pods; you also could make persimmon-ginger beer.