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….
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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….
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.
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.
‘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, 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…
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.