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Tough Fruit

A line of thought evolving from the interest in both epigenetics and the Paleo diet has led to an exploration of low cultivated, western European, Asian and North American fruit trees in our Food Forest systems.

What does this mean? Well, we all love fruit. A fresh, crispy apple or sweet, fleshy nectarine are hard to beat, but how often do we need to eat such super sweet treats bred for hundreds of years over thousands of generations to be as large and flavoursome as possible. Are our bodies designed to be eating these ‘Dessert Fruit’? What are we designed to ingest?

25 000 years ago (the Paleolithic era) our ancestors would have had a large variety of fruits and nuts in their diets. Though there is great evidence to suggest ancient man did cultivate plants to their advantage at that time, none would have been selected as intensively and bred into forms resembling today’s more common fruits. Instead they would have been eating what we would see as ‘wild’ fruits, some being the ancestors of popular modern fruit species. Relatively uncultivated, many of these fruits were smaller, tarter (lower in sugars), fibrous, nutrient rich and often times seasonally variant. Think crab apple Vs apple. As diet and nutrition is such a motivating interest for so many I felt it was well worth exploring a number of interesting, less well known, low-cultivated fruits. Any of our readers from the Northern Hemisphere who find the following selection less than exotic please bear in mind that most of these plants are largely unheard of as food crops in the Southern Hemisphere, especially to the average joe, and may in fact only be applicable in our most southerly, temperate areas. Let’s take a look at a brief profiling of but a few….


Mespilus germanica

‘The Medlar’: Closely related to the Pear and Apple, the Medlar, like many fruits and nuts that require some form of processing before consumption, fell out of favour toward the end of last century but is now seeing somewhat of a renaissance of interest. Long associated with Germany but in fact native to the woodlands of Asia Minor (ike so many of its Rosaceae kin) the Medlar fruits require a period of ‘bletting’ before it’s high tannin levels are reduced, leaving a soft, brown paste like consistency reminiscent of pear or baked apple. No doubt, part of the Medlars appeal was once (and is now again) that due to it’s bletting period it provided people with ‘fresh’ fruit well into winter. Unique, hardy, a beautiful specimen tree in its own right.


Amelanchier spp.

‘Juneberries’, ‘serviceberries’ etc.. Sometimes called Saskatoon (they are still highly prized in Canada), the various species of the Amelanchier genus, largely from Northern America, provide delicious, small berries — many close in size, appearance and taste to currants and blueberries. An exceptionally hardy genus thriving in a wide range of climates and soil types, the Amelanchiers deserve far more attention than they currently receive.


Cornus canadensis

‘Bunchberry’. The Cornus genus or ‘dogwoods’ have been widely forgotten in modern times but were once a popular orchard plant in the near East. Famous in antiquity, their extremely hard wood was prized for making clubs and was reportedly the timber from which the Greeks built the Trojan Horse. At best their fruit is large and sweet — the Cornelian Cherry boasting the finest — though at worst very sour or insipid. However its extreme hardiness, especially to cold temperatures, makes it worth the experiment. Cornus canadensis or ‘bunchberry’ is a small ground cover bearing red fruits. Its hardiness to water logging will be perfect for those spots that have a very high perched water table.


Sorbus spp.

‘Serviceberries’, ‘whitebeams’, ‘rowans’. Pushing the edge of what we would consider worthy of our spoilt pallets, the stand out, redeeming features of the Sorbus genus are their hardiness, beauty and the medicinal qualities of their fruit, being effective anti-diuretics and digestive aids due the high levels of particular tannins. These tannins also mean that many Sorbus fruit require a bletting period similar to their cousin, the Medlar and once were well utilised as the bases of ciders and sauces. Also of note was the Rowan’s place as a tree of great protective, Magickal properties in Pagan Western Europe. In fact within the old Druidic Tree Alphabet, the ‘Ogham’, the letter ‘Luis’ was attributed to what we call the Rowan. Our name for it in turn deriving from the Germanic/Saxonic ‘run/ron/rune’, meaning Magick, specifically ‘to spell/cast a spell’. Powerful stuff.


Aronia spp.

‘Chokeberry’. Disconcerting name aside, the Chokeberries have outstanding potential. These tasty, currant sized fruit are high in not only antioxidants but they have also been found to contain high numbers of cardioprotective, anti diabetic, anti inflammatory, antibacterial, immunomodulatory and antiviral compounds. Who’d of thought? A Chokeberry a day may well keep the doctor away….

On top of a potentially valuable source at otherwise hard to find nutrients, these plants are generally far hardier than their highly groomed progeny. This trait is of paramount importance when selecting species to include in one’s food forest design, a primary premise of food forestry being the establishment of largely self maintaining, perennial systems. In part, this hardiness makes many of them great contenders for Hedgerow/Shelterbelt plantings….


Cratageus spp

Hedgerows and Shelterbelts.

Lately I’ve noticed a returning interest and enthusiasm for the old hedgerow systems of Europe and the many multifunction species often found therein. Hedgerows of course function not only as fencing but also wildlife habitat, windbreak, food systems, aesthetics etc… Once established, these physically very appealing features take little maintenance (excluding of course the ‘laying’ of the hedge once every decade or so). Below are a selection of hedgerow plants that also provide highly nutritious fruits.

‘Hawthorns’. Famous in the UK as primary Hedgerow plants, Hawthorns have largely been forgotten as a food source, but many Cratageus species provide high yields of good fruit, particularly valuable as a heart treatment in herbal medicine. Couple this with their general hardiness, wildlife-attracting properties, aesthetic beauty and functions as hedgerow plants (some species have serious thorns, intimidating even the most ambitious stock) and even hardy rootstock for other more sensitive Rosaceae species.


Rosa spp.

High in Vitamin C, most (if not all) rosehips are edible, but beware the irritating hairs surrounding the seeds. Rosa rugosa, the Apple Rose, sports the largest fruit I’ve ever seen on a rose and is the perfect ingredient for a classic Rose Hip tea, syrup or wine. With its disease resistance, sprawling/climbing habit, and like most roses, formidable thorns, it’s no wonder this too is another tried and true UK hedgerow addition.


Prunus spinosa

‘Sloe’, ‘blackthorn’. Another UK hedgerow staple, second perhaps only to the Hawthorn, the sloe is a suckering shrub wielding large thorns. Both traits making it ideal for hedgerows. The fruits are small, purple and plum-like, sour and astringent when raw. The traditional ingredient in Sloe Gin — a simple liqueur made by soaking the fruit in gin with sugar. This author can personally attest to both its quality and its punch!

Support Species

Support species, whether nitrogen fixers or not, are an indispensable part of any regenerative food forest system. Though perhaps not always producing large yields of food they do provide much needed shade, shelter from wind, moisture retention, mulch and a generally supportive environment for your high food yielding trees. Often neglected as a secondary or superfluous exercise, support species can be the ‘make or break’ element in your system.

Actinorhizal Nitrogen Fixers

That most leguminous plants fix atmospheric nitrogen is an increasingly well appreciated fact as more and more people look for natural, low energy ways to regenerate their food systems. Fewer people know that some non-leguminous plants also fix nitrogen via actinobacteria. Below are a few…


Elaeagnus spp.

‘Autumn Olive’, ‘goumi’. This less well known northern hemispheric genus is gaining in popularity amongst antipodean food foresters. They are hardy, good in windbreaks and many varieties sport excellent fruit.


Hippophae spp.

‘Sea buckthorn’, ‘Himalayan buckthorn’, ‘seaberry’. Fellow members of the Elaeagnaceae family. Long known to practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine, the Buckthorns oil rich fruits are said to assist the healing of gastric and peptic ulcers. Extremely wind hardy, they make excellent additions to hedgerows and windbreaks. Like their relatives the Elaeagnus, they too are actinorhizal nitrogen fixers. This genus deserves far more attention than it has received but thankfully it is becoming increasingly appreciated for the superlative medicinals they are.



Myrica spp.

‘Bayberries’. The Myrica genus are unusual. They are one of very few groups of plants that produce a true wax. And thus they have been used by many to make candles. Their fruit and leaves are used as an aromatic culinary spice.

As our appreciation for robust plant genetics continues to evolve and our understanding of diet and nutrition is too further refined it is this author’s opinion that fruit trees like the ones mentioned above will only increase in popularity. Plants whose genetic heritage is not the temperamental result of commercial or purely culinary breeding programs will be seen ever more for the ‘vitamin pills’ that they can be and not just an obscure second choice to better known ‘dessert fruits’. Starting with strong stock we can all develop these fruits further toward our local conditions.

15 Comments

  1. many Cratageus species provide high yields of good fruit

    Can you suggest some species that have good fruit where good is either size or taste or, preferably, both?

    Thanks

    DG

  2. DG,
    The Mediteranean Medlar (Crataegus azarole) has
    yellow or pink fr. about 2cm dia… it tastes ok.
    I know of a small plant just out front of the Macedon Horticultural Society Hall (near to golf course)
    There are a few well established specimens of Mespilus germanica there too.
    Take a few small bits and graft them onto quince as rootstock.
    2 main vars available are ‘Nottingham’ and ‘Dutch’.
    the plants mentioned above may be either of these.

    The Tejocote or Mexican Hawthorn (C.mexicana syn.C.pubescens) has yellow fruits about 3cm dia.
    There’s a tree that I believe to be this species in
    Colac Bot. Gardens Vic.

    Leigh,
    Don at Yamina nursery has Aronia melanocarpa plants ( and a heap more seedlings comming on,
    Amelanchier canadensis maybe, but def. A.alnifolia
    a few Eleagnus spp.
    E.ebbingii and E.macrophylla (both evergreen and E.macrophylla beig one of the parents of E.ebbingii) would be my pick from his catalogue. better fruitset with two different clones,
    but be worth asking if he has E.multiflora (deciduous).
    Hippophae rhamnoides
    several edible Cornus spp.,
    inc. some named, selected cvs. of C.mas
    but not C.canadensis afaik.
    Though Phoenix seeds (Tas.) have offered seed over the last 25yrs that I know of.

  3. Our local nursery usually has medlars in planting season but sadly not this year when I wanted to buy one. For years my parents lived in an old house that had one in the garden – and we didn’t know what it was! Kicking myself now, all that lovely fruit gone to waste. A stunning tree in Autumn too.

  4. Very interesting stuff, but I’ve only ever seen a couple of these plants for sale in WA. Don’t know what our chances of bringing them in to this state would be like.

  5. Thanks guys. It seems Speedy’s covered most questions for now. Marie, This year I have attempted to propagate a number of the above mentioned plants. Hippophae rhamnoides, H. salicifolia, Myrica californica, Elaeagnus multiflora, E. umbellata, Amelancia alnifolia etc…

    As I type only the Amelanchier and Hipophae salicifolia have germinated. I have my fingers crossed that the others will come up too as Im dying to get my hands on them especially the H. rhamnoides and Eaeagnus.

    I do not know of these plants ANYwhere else in W.A though I do know of other Elaeagnus species here.

  6. Great Byron, it was awesome to see the pictures in there of these cultivars we are stepping back into the process of co evolution with!!!! I’m excited about them all and many more and about the New Zealand journey in this field. We ( Koanga) are about to publish a Design Your Own Forest Garden Booklet ( will be available in November), and my own fledgling forest garden is really beginning to get exciting only 18 mnths down from scratch . Thanks for the post Kay

  7. In Southern California we have amongst others Toyon which is a rosacea and produces small sour but edible fruit.

  8. Newlyn Antiques has a wonderful fruit tree nursery attached with a good range of apple and related trees. Many of the dessert fruits as you rightly call them but also Medlars. :) I recognised it after having seen it on Victoria or Edwardian Farm series and as it was in fruit at the time and there was precious else to see aside from bare branches it did stand out. :)

  9. Thank you, Byron. Mouth-watering article, even despite the warning that many of them are not what our tastebuds are conditioned to :-).

    Does anyone know of any Elaeagnus spp in Northern NSW?

    I’ve been looking for this one for a while :-)

  10. Hi Leigh. I’m up in the Macedon Ranges and grow a couple of varieties of medlars (Dutch and Nottingham). When fully ripened the fruit tastes like dates to me. You can probably get them via the Diggers Club. They shouldn’t be too hard to find. They are very hardy trees. Grab some quince trees whilst you are at it (cooked with a bit of cinnamon they are pure genius)!

    As to a local fruit tree which is currently under valued check out lilly pilly’s. The fruit was traditionally used in making jams as they are quite high in pectin.

  11. I’ve got a book, that describes (along with veggies and edible greens) a number of fruit trees and berry shrubs (including some of the listed above), their properties and peculiarities, planting and cultivating techniques, and so forth. It’s late 80-s publishing, of course it’s ‘conventional’, not permacultire or even ‘organic’ book, but it carries loads of useful information. Alas, it’s in russian. Even if i could share it – would that be of use…

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