Uncommon Fruits

I’ve recently been reading Lee Reich’s Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. I had read a number of recommendations for it online, but put off acquiring a copy of my own. It just seemed like the sort of book that I’d regret spending time on, because the information inside would be a regurgitation of what is available online in so many places.

I was mistaken. It is an excellent book, and Lee Reich brings more to it than you will find in many hours of reading on the internet. He also managed to include one plant, Shipova, that I’d not heard about before.

It occurs to me that doing a shotgun approach to see how many I could grow might be a fun project. There are 23 chapters in the book, and many of the chapters cover several related species. Trying to grow every single plant mentioned would be more than I could handle in a year, even if I were retired and had nothing else on my plate. It is also late in the spring to be ordering bare root plants. I restricted my options to plants that were readily available as seed, and would be reasonable to get started no earlier than late spring or early summer. I might also try a few that can be easily collected from empty lots, woodlots, and the gardens of friends and neighbors.

As it happens many of these uncommon fruits are not widely available except as seeds, and no particular preferred cultivars are available as cloned plants. I placed an order from JL Hudson, Seedsman a couple of days ago. I’ll give these a shot, and provide updates as I go along.

Juneberries (Amelanchier spp) are the subject of the first chapter. JL Hudson doesn’t carry seeds for these, and I’m not sure where I might pick some up. I have however acquired several different clones over the last few years.

Beach plum (Prunus maritima) is next on the list. Again I’m not sure where I would pick up seeds for this. However I have a 4 year old plant I grew from seed from Mary Beth Rauch. I also have several seed grown plants from Oikos Tree Crops. It is an easy to grow, fast growing shrub. Freshly collected seeds sprout readily after several months of cold, moist storage.

Alpine and Musk strawberries (Fragraria vesca and F. moschata) are readily available as both seed and plants. I ordered ‘Golden Alexandria’ and ‘Alpine Yellow’, both F. vesca varieties. “Wild” strawberries are also readily found in many backyards and woodlots. Look for the runners, and select an emerging plant that is just starting to show signs of root growth. Clip it off, push it lightly down into some soil, and it should strike roots very quickly.

Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) is quite honestly a beast to try to grow. Plenty of named clones are available from a number of different locations. They are all typically grafted onto seedling stock, they are all very often back ordered, and they tend to be pricey. Seed grown plants are also available, often at a more attractive price.

I’ve purchased seed in the past from the web. Pawpaw seed loses viability rapidly when it dries out. I know this from personal experience. Make sure that whoever you order seed from knew what they were doing when they collected the seed.

Fresh collected seed, stored cool and moist in the refrigerator for at least three months, sprouts readily. Plant it sufficiently deep, 1/4″ is decent, 1″ isn’t too deep. Then step back, water regularly, and have patience. In my experience the seedlings will break the surface within 4 to six months, assuming that you planted actual sprouted seed to begin with. Yes, it takes a long time. Some sources suggest that the seed may take one to two years to sprout. I’ve seen that happen in at least one instance.

If you manage to get the seedlings to this point without them drying out, bright sunlight can still make short work of them. This is how I lost every one of the seedlings I was growing in 2006. Partial shade for at least the first growing season is necessary to get the seedlings to survive, as well as avoiding drying them out.

I have quite a few pawpaw seedlings, but JL Hudson listed them in stock, and I figured I’d try growing a few more.

Raisin tree (Hovenia dulcis) is something I’ve read about, but never tried growing. I ordered a packet of these as well. Reich seems to indicate that these are fairly easy from seed, and that seed is the preferred means of propagation in this country. We’ll find out shortly.

Next up in lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idea). This is the first one I’m going to just flat out skip. I grow blueberries, and I’ve tried growing other Vaccinium from seed, with rather mixed results. I didn’t see a ready source of seed, and I decided to bow out gracefully on this one.

Kiwifruit (Actinidia spp) have been easy for me to start from seed out of the grocery store fruit. Unfortunately those are A. deliciosa and not cold hardy around here. I couldn’t find seeds for any of the hardier Actinidias, and as I mentioned before, I’m not going to try to find started plants this late in the planting season.

Mulberries belong to the Morus genus. The only mulberry really likely to be winter hardy here is M. alba. I actually have two of these in the ground already. JL Hudson offers seed packets of M nigra though, and claims they are hardy to USDA zone 5. I suspect that these are actually mis-identified seeds from a black fruited M. alba, and I also suspect that the seeds won’t be viable. I’ve tried growing M. nigra from dry stored seed before, with zero success. However for $2.50 I’m willing to gamble on the long shot. Sounds like more fun than a lottery ticket anyway.

Persimmons (Diospyros spp) are next on the list. The book focuses on kaki persimmons (D. kaki) and native american persimmons (D. virginiana). It also mentions the date persimmon (D. lotus). Kaki persimmons are out. Nothing I’ve read indicates they have a prayer of surviving a western Pennsylvania winter. American persimmons are in. I couldn’t find seed, but in 2010 I was at the outer banks where american persimmons were fruiting freely along the road ways.

Well, road way. There is pretty much one road up and down the island. Collecting the fruit was a little challenging. The nastiest possible biting flies hung out on the branches, and as soon as one of the fruits were plucked, they’d dive bomb me. At any rate, the seedlings have proven very hardy in Pennsylvania.

I also ordered a packet of D. lotus seed. Again it seems a bit of a long shot. I’m not entirely clear that the plant will be cold hardy here, nor how well the seed stores. It seems like a more likely success than the mulberry though, and I felt the $2.50 for a packet of seed to be a worthwhile investment.

Elaeagnus spp are one of those plant groups that seems to have a lot of names, but no widely identified common name. I have several name culivars, and I’ve grown this from seed quite a few times. I love the fruit, and the plant is a delight to grow. This one, more so E. multiflora and E. angustifolia have a reputation for invasiveness. Personally I’ve not seen that with E. multiflora in this area, but I can believe that E. angustifolia and perhaps other members of the genus could be invasive in areas with low soil fertility. I wasn’t able to locate seeds for this project, but I will have access to wild crafted seeds and my own plants’ seeds this fall.

Gooseberries are also in the book, and these are one of my favorites. Ribes spp is the best I can come up with to describe this one. Reich lists them as R. uva-crispa and R. hirtellum, but I’ve also seen a number of other species mentioned as contributing to the domesticated gooseberry gene pool.

I’ve grown these from seed, but bare rooted plants are so readily available, where this plant is legal to grow, and the bare rooted plants are so successful, in this particular case it seems wasteful of time and energy to try to grow them from seed. If you want to do so, fresh or dried seed can be stored moist and cold for 3-4 months, and then sown very lightly into good soil. Or just crush a few berries, mix them into the soil surface of a 1 gallon nursery pot, protect from rodents, and keep it evenly moist. Expect good germination the next spring.

I ordered a packet of R. divaricatum from JL Hudson, but it turns out that the packet I planted last year is actually resulting in plants this year. Looks like I should have lots of them shortly. A similar pattern of germination as described above for gooseberries works well with R. divaricatum, which is essentially a wild gooseberry.

Maypops (Passiflora spp) are something that I grew once for a number of years ago, without ever knowing for certain which species I was growing. I was told that it was P. incarnata by the friend that gave it to me. Other folks assured me that P. incarnata could never be contained by the single 1 gallon pot that housed it for several years. I eventually lost it when trying to plant it outside, so whatever it was, it was not winter hardy in western Pennsylvania. JL Hudson offers seeds for several Passiflora species, including P. incarnata. It looks like it can succeed here, we’ll see if it does.

Che (Cudrania tricuspidata) sure looks interesting, and should be hardy here. I’ve seen plants available, but no seeds that I can find right now. For right now, I’m going to skip this species.

Black currants (Ribes spp) are another one of my favorites. I have nearly a dozen name varieties that I grow, along with three different selections of R. odoratum, and several of R. americanum plants. The flavor of the raw berry is an acquired taste, I suppose, but I’ve acquired it! While I’m not going to grow this from seed for this project, it is relatively straight forward to propagate similar to gooseberries. Seed stored cool and moist for several months will germinate readily. Hardwood cuttings of last year’s growth will strike roots without much fuss in order to propagate a named variety.

Nanking cherry (Prunus tormentosa) I’m going to have to pass on. I don’t see a seed source, I don’t know of any nearby plants, and I’m unwilling to try to mail order this so late into the spring. The latin name, tormentosa doesn’t refer to any sort of torment, but rather indicates that the leaves tend to be downy. This plant is often available inexpensively and in bulk via mail order.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) unlike nanking cherry is not a member of the cherry family. Instead it is a dogwood. I love dogwoods, and one that can be eaten sure is appealing. I have seeds on order for this plant. This may be a longer term seed project, as several sources indicate it is slow to germinate, and may take 5-8 years to produce fruit after sprouting. Reich and JL Hudson both indicate that the fruit from these seed grown plants should be just fine.

Red, white, and pink currants (Ribes spp) can be grown just like black currants, which in turn are very similar to gooseberries. I don’t have any pink currants, and most of my red currants are actually taken from selected feral populations. These are easy to spot from the road and trail in early spring, with a little practice. It usually isn’t hard to get permission to take a 12″ clipping. Shove it all the way into a 1 gallon plastic pot of soil, and by the next spring you’ve got a plant ready to grow.

The named white currants I grow (White Grape and White Imperial) are the absolute slowest growing currants I have. I’m tempted to try to hand pollinate the two and grow out seeds from the resulting berries. I’m curious as to whether seedlings would show more vigorous growth than the named varieties.

Asian pears (Pyrus pyrifolia, P. spp) are easy to grow from seed. Cold, moist treatment will sprout the seeds within 3-4 months, at which point they can be planted into 1 gallon black plastic pots. Even if they don’t sprout while in the cold, after 3-4 months they can be planted out and should sprout shortly after moving to warmer conditions.

One down side to growing asian pears from seed is that fruits are probably the better part of a decade away from planting the seed. Another drawback is that there is no guarantee that the resulting pears will be as good as the parent fruit. I do it because it is fun to watch them grow! My largest is currently 4 years old, and was nearly 7 feet tall this spring. I pruned it back rather severely in hopes that it will bring on fruiting soon.

If you want asian pears and quickly, purchase a grafted tree. These will produce quickly soon after planting and will produce a known quality fruit.

Jostaberry is a complex hybrid between various black currants, one or more domesticated gooseberries, and sometimes some wild gooseberries (notably the R. divaricatum mentioned earlier). In reviewing this, it occurs to me that I’ve turned my nose up to this plant based mostly on descriptions from the California Rare Fruit Grower’s Fruit Facts, as well as a couple of experiences from people that might not have been well positioned to judge the plants.

At any rate this complex hybrid is not going to be available as seed, and I’m not going to order live plants right now. I may need to revisit this plant in the future.

Lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium spp, primarily V. angustifolium) are also reviewed in a very positive manner by Reich. Just like with longonberry, I am going to bow out gracefully. I’m not feeling up to growing this from seed, however there are several offerings of lowbush blueberry and huckleberry available in seed form. I may decide to hit up a neighbor for rhizome or shoot cuttings.

Jujube (Zizyphus jujuba) sounds fascinating. It might be marginal with regards to winter hardiness, and apparently does not come true from seed, but it seems like a worthwhile project to me. I’ve got seeds for this on their way.

Shipova (XSorbopyrus sp) is the one I hadn’t heard of before. It sounds like an interesting plant, but it isn’t going to be available as seed, and even clonally propagated plants look like they will be fun to locate. Above and beyond that, Reich didn’t convince me that the extra effort beyond planting an asian pear would be worth the trouble.

Medlar (Mespilus germanica) is the last of Reich’s list. It sounds interesting, and I’ve tried to purchase live plants in the past. Thus far I’ve failed to place an order while the plants were still in stock. Seeds do not appear to be readily available, and don’t seem to be a recommended method of propagation anyway. No matter, I’ll skip this one for now as well.

In addition to these I’m also going to try growing some Lycium spp (goji or wolfberry) and some Physalis peruviana (golden berry or Cape Gooseberry).

Stay tuned!


Fun with Fruit Trees in the Spring

Plants that are both decorative and fruitful are near and dear to my heart. Apple and pear trees fit that slot perfectly.

This past week I found myself rather belatedly pruning some fruit trees on the family farm. Normally winter pruning is something done on apples in late winter or very early spring. This spring has been rather warm and everything seems a bit ahead of itself. I would have liked to have been out there doing the pruning in early March. Still the leaves are still young and the flower buds hadn’t started to break just yet, so when I found myself on the farm with a bow saw, pruning shears, and a little spare time, I made the best of it.

Pruning of the pome fruits, apples, pears, and the lesser known quince, is one of those things that is both easy to get started on, yet can look like magic from the outside. The ultimate goal is to help balance the tree with regards to new growth and older, fruiting wood. Without new growth each year, the tree can stagnate or become cyclic in its fruiting cycle. When it goes cyclic, it will often bear very heavily every second or third year, and bear next to nothing the other years.

Pome fruit trees fruit best on second year growth, fruiting spurs (short branchlet looking things a few inches long at most), or in some cases the shoot tips. Watching where fruit forms on your tree will provide clues as to how to prune in the future.

Another goal of pruning is to contain the size of the fruit tree. It isn’t an accident that fruit is often borne most heavily on the highest branches. Those branches get the most sun, and are the farthest away from ground dwelling herbivores that might consume the fruit before it is ripe and falls down to their level. By pruning upwards pointing branches, you can guide the tree into an easier to harvest form. By clipping the tip of a young, unbranched tree you stimulate more growth in the side branches. Clipping a newly planted fruit tree at about 4 to 5 feet in height will typically guarantee a fork in the tree at that height.

Another important goal in pruning fruit trees is to improve their health. This might be the simplest approach to start learning as well. When branches cross, literally grow across each other and touching, they will rub against each other and wear holes in the bark of the branches. Because the branches are rubbing in the wind, these injuries tend not to heal properly. By clipping out branches that are crossing and rubbing, you help keep the bark intact, and disease out.

You can also clip out blighted branches. Cut the branch at least 5 to 6 inches back into healthy looking wood, ideally back at a joint so that you remove an entire diseased branch cleanly. A solution of 10% bleach or 70% rubbing alcohol can be used to sanitize the shears or saw between cuts, and this is particularly important when trying to remove an infection from a tree.

This week I planted out an asiatic pear tree. In October of 2008 a co-worker passed me a pile of very excellent asiatic pears, and I started the tree from a seed from that batch. In mid April of 2012 the tree was over 7 feet tall, in a 5 gallon bucket of soil, and the roots were grown through the drain holes into the bottom of the greenhouse.

I pried up the roots as best as I could with a broadfork, carted the tree out into the back, and planted it firmly into the ground. I pruned it down to about 5 feet, clipped off several large branches that were growing in the wrong direction, and staked it straight. Pruning the tree at planting helps balance damage done to the roots, fewer roots, fewer branches for the roots to support.

At the same time I tied down a couple of the side branches. Pear trees tend to produce heavily, and large branches can snap off under the weight of the fruit. By training the branches to grow at a wider angle, there is less chance of the branch breaking later in life.

I piled on several inches of undyed, double ground mulch to a circle about 4 feet across. This helps hold in moisture, provides a buffer zone for when the lawn mower passes by, and the double ground wood mulch provides an excellent base for proper soil microbes to form a symbiotic relationship with the tree. The red, black, or brown dyed mulch all work great as well. I find that away from the house, the undyed mulch forms an aesthetic framing for a fruit tree without drawing attention away from the tree.

Happy Gardening out there!