Finding the Uncommon Fruits Among the Natives

The road was a two-car squeezer of yellow clay captured between ditch banks three-feet high. Yellow clay produces a prodigious amount of dust, and every summer of our childhood my brother and I, feet bared and toughened, kicked our share of it on the lookout for wild plums. My mother called them Bullaces – a name left over from our English roots and the small black plums originating there – as she picked her own supply for jam making. Still another name for the small red and yellow fruits of Prunus angustifolia is Chickasaw plum. But wild plum or Bullace, the names still evoke in me those late, sultry afternoons and the burst of sweetly tart juice running over my tongue. By the time the lightning bugs came out, we’d be grubby and sticky, fighting off the yellow jackets, our stomachs distended with the sweet ambrosia offered along a country road.

Blooming on old wood, the small, white, fragrant blossoms of the native Chickasaw appear before the leaf, looking as if tiny white butterflies were celebrating spring. Hardy in zones 5 to 9, it adapts well to a wide range of soil types, requiring little maintenance once established. Not picky, it can grow in full sun or part shade.

Grown as a small tree (to twenty feet) with its slender, spreading branches and glossy mahogany bark, it makes a lovely addition to a wildlife or fruit garden. But I like it best growing naturally in a thicket or in a mixed native hedge where the flowers blanket the trees in spring and the small red fruits look like baubles for Solstice in late summer.

     Prunus angustifolia provides nesting sites for songbirds and game birds – mockingbirds, bobwhites, brown thrashers. Prairie chickens and domestic fowl find sanctuary inside its thickets.  And small children on long ago afternoons of plum picking might just be able to share the bounty with a curious and hungry deer.

For me it was the Chickasaw plum, for my daughter it was the persimmons off my mother’s tree.

My mother’s persimmon, the native Diospyros virginiana, grew at the corner of their house. Becoming pudding-like when ripe, the fruit would drop from the tree onto the driveway, providing a feast for a little girl and the squirrels chattering above. Once common in valleys and on upland plateaus across the Eastern and Central U.S. south of the Great Lakes, it’s less known now.

When we first moved to our farm in the foothills of the Appalachians, we found a persimmon tree growing alongside the footbridge spanning the creek behind the house. That first year, we watched its fruit turn from green to yellow to amber, anticipating the honey sweet flesh of this “Fruit of the Gods”. One morning we looked out to find the tree stripped. Not one persimmon left hanging. From up at the barn, we heard them – the flock of turkeys that roost in the Beech woods. They sounded sated, full of ripe persimmons.

Although not as high in nutrients as our native Diospyros, many of the Japanese varieties of Diospyros kaki are small enough to be tucked into a border or anchor a corner of the house. At only 10 feet ‘Ichi Ki Kei Jiro’ is self fertile – unlike the native that requires a male and a female – and the fruit can be eaten while still firm. And maybe you’ll stand a better chance against marauding turkeys, or squirrels, or deer or a little tow-headed girl.

Do children still sing “Pickin up Pawpaws. Put ‘em in your pocket”? At six, I didn’t have a clue why I’d want to be picking up something called a pawpaw; so when my class stopped weaving in and out between our desks, I asked my teacher. She just looked at me. But books are marvelous things. I found out it’s the largest edible fruit native to the United States. Years later, I saw my first pawpaw tree, Asimina triloba, growing beneath a canopy of oak and beech. Looking almost tropical – although it’s hardy to zone 5 – it’s a small tree with large drooping leaves and rich purple flowers.  From a collector in Tifton, Georgia comes a variety called ‘Mango’, its yellow flesh tasting like…yeah, mangoes.

For this native you’ll need your best soil – fertile, moist but well-drained. And you’ll need at least two for pollination in order to reap the benefits of the luscious, three to five-inch fruits, tasting of banana laced with a hint of mango. High in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, amino acids and a number of vitamins, the nutritious fruit can be shared in the early fall with deer, raccoons, opossums and most song birds. Although the native can reach a height of thirty-five feet, the hybrids, Shenandoah and Allegheny, top out at fifteen.

Growing naturally in creek bottoms and along riverbanks beneath stands of hardwoods, the native mayhaws, Crataegus opaca and Crataegus aestivalis – too long in the shadows – deserves its day in the sunny garden. A member of the hawthorn family, it is to me, the most beautiful of that distinctive tribe.  In spring the tree bursts into bloom, becoming a blizzard of white blossoms, the anthers tipped in wine. The bees gather in a frenzy of pollination. In early summer the clusters of small, red berries look like garlands on an early Christmas tree, a treat for wildlife. High in Vitamin C, potassium, calcium and beta-carotene, it makes the finest jelly in the country. Just ask the folks of Colquitt, Georgia – Mayhaw Capital of the World.

Check out the website http://www.mayhaw.org for a thoroughly enjoyable read on the particulars of the mayhaw.

As gardeners we know the benefits of planting native fruits, nuts and berries – nurtures wildlife, the environment, our health – and apples and blueberries have long been part of our landscape. But get a long time gardener or grower talking about the fruit and nuts he grew up eating. You won’t hear a list of benefits. You’ll hear stories. Weaving itself through our memories, our histories, the natural world binds us to our human selves and to each other – if we participate. And what better way to do that than to plant a little orchard of uncommon natives in the garden.

But what about those wild plums? They’re about kicking up dust on a country road, juice dripping off my chin. They’re about childhood and family and beauty and truth. Late last winter I planted my first in what I hope will be a grove of Chickasaw plums out near the chicken house. It bore one plum, plucked at peak ripeness by one of our resident Cardinals. This morning, its bloom buds near bursting promise a crop just big enough to share. And my Alabama ditch bank? Only a memory paved over by progress.

 

Sources:

Edible Landscapes, Afton, VA – http://www.ediblelandscaping.com

Ison’s Nursery and Vineyards, Brooks, GA – http://www.isons.com

Stark Brothers – http://www.starkbros.com

Just Fruits and Exotics, Crawfordville, FL – http://www.justfruitsandexotics.com

 

Blooming now – HelleboresSAM_2194