Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
Native fruits offer gardeners a bountiful array of fresh choices
Article by Julie Bawden Davis
On any given day in late fall and early winter, nursery owner Ken Asmus figures that he eats about a half pound of American persimmons (Diospyros virginiana). While Asmus inspects and cares for the thousands of native fruit trees that he grows, he can't help but sample the soft, tempting fruits. "They're exquisite, and they melt in my mouth like candy," says Asmus, who runs Oikos Tree Crops in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a native fruit tree nursery that he started 20 years ago.
Until recently, Oikos and a handful of other nursery professionals carrying native fruits for the home garden have worked in relative obscurity. While a few native fruits have always been in the limelight - like blueberries and cranberries - many others have remained novelties with limited regional recognition. Thanks to the public's ravenous appetite for new foods and the movement toward organic gourmet produce, however, Asmus and other native fruit growers see the tide changing.
Now the public is gobbling up previously lesser-known native fruits like the pawpaw (Asimina triloba), which has a rich, custard-like interior. They are also enjoying a variety of native berries (like the Saskatoon serviceberry [Amelanchier alnifolia]) for their unheralded use in the making of jellies and jam.
"A significant part of the fruit market is swinging back in the direction of food that tastes good and is interesting," says Scott Harris, executive director of TreeFolks, which grows and protects urban forests in Central Texas. Harris also is a certified arborist and organic farmer who grows and sells a variety of native fruits. "Tiny native plums and unusual berries you wouldn't see 15 years ago are selling for $4 a pint as fast as they can be grown," says Harris.
Making It Commercially
The North American blueberry is a prime example of how one native fruit made it to superstar status. Packed with nutrition and unrivaled in flavor, many of the blueberries we enjoy today are the same varieties that were eaten by Native Americans.
"Blueberries are our big success story," says Asmus. "They're easy to cultivate, cover a wide range of climates, and have a great flavor and many uses."
The cranberry is another decidedly North American fruit with a wide variety of uses, says Lorry Erickson, director of the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center, in Warrens, Wisconsin. "Nearly 800 products are made using cranberries, all of which are grown in North America."
Despite the success of these fruits, and to a certain extent Concord grapes and their offshoots, remarkably few native fruits in their original form have actually made it big commercially. "I'd say that not more than five percent of the fruit sold in the grocery store [in this country] is native," says Asmus.
A big stumbling block to the cultivation and commercialization of native fruits is the fact that many must be ripe in order to be picked and shipped, giving them an extremely short shelf-life. Many native fruits also require processing and sweetening before they can be used, which hampers their commercial viability. The chokeberry and chokecherry are examples of fruit that are unpalatable unless mixed with other foods and sweetened.
Complete article is available within the Fall 2005 issue of Native Plants.