All-American Tree Fruits
Scattered throughout the woodlands of North America are hidden treasures waiting to be discovered—pawpaws, mulberries, and persimmons. These tasty fruits grow on beautiful, native American trees that practically take care of themselves. What could be better for an organic garden?
Over the years, our American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) has received a bad rap, mostly due to the awful sensation that comes from eating the unripe fruits. But when ripe, the fruits actually have a rich, honeylike flavor and jellylike texture.
Native from Connecticut to Florida and west to Kansas, persimmon trees grow about 50 feet tall and look handsome in the home landscape. For home gardens in most regions, the best cultivars are ‘Early Golden’, ‘Florence’, ‘Garretson’, ‘Killen’, ‘Morris Burton’, and ‘Wabash’. If you live in the fruits’ northern range, however, choose an early-ripening variety, such as ‘Meader’, ‘John Rick’, or ‘Yates’.
Persimmons are attractive trees with large, leathery leaves that turn beautiful bright colors in the fall. The bright orange fruit often hangs on the branches long after the leaves drop. Persimmon fruit can be very astringent before the fruit is mushy-ripe, but some cultivars can be enjoyed while still firm.
Persimmon pollination can be a little tricky to understand. Sometimes the male trees produce female flowers and vice versa. The easiest way to get fruits is to plant a self-fertile female tree, such as ‘Garretson’ or ‘Meader’. To get fruit from the other varieties, you’ll need to plant both sexes, or graft a male branch onto a female tree.
Dig deeply when you plant or transplant—the persimmon tree has a long taproot. Potted trees can be transplanted at any time, but the best time to plant a bareroot tree is in spring. Be sure to water the plants throughout their first season. Persimmons produce a lot of root suckers. Discourage them by spreading a thick layer of organic mulch such as compost over the root zone. Remove suckers whenever you see them.
Persimmons are reasonably pest-free in the home garden. They can be troubled by scale and borers, and by persimmon psylla and citrus mealybug in the South.
Don’t harvest your persimmons until the fruits are fully colored and soft. The ripe fruits are delicious when eaten fresh, but they also make good pies, breads, cookies, and cakes. Before you use persimmons in a recipe, add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda per cup of pulp to remove any remaining astringency.
Photo: Rodale Images
Maybe you’ve already planted one of these 25- to 30-foot trees for its white or reddish spring blossoms and vibrant autumn foliage. If so, don’t overlook the tasty, edible fruit. The small blue, red, or white berries have a unique sweet flavor that hints of almond.
Juneberry trees and shrubs (Amelanchier spp.) grow wild throughout North America and are known by various other names, including saskatoon, shadblow, and sarvis or serviceberry. All species bear edible fruits, but the tastiest ones are found on the Allegheny serviceberry (A. laevis), the thicket serviceberry (A. canadensis), the saskatoon (A. alnifolia), and a hybrid, the apple serviceberry (A. grandiflora). Good varieties for fruit and beauty include ‘Ballerina’, ‘Cumulus’, and ‘Robin Hill’.
Plant your juneberry in well-drained soil in either full sun or partial shade. The trees are hardy in Zones 4 through 8, and need little care once they are established. If you see a few orange spots on the leaves, don't be alarmed. It’s probably rust, a disease spread from wild red cedars. You don’t need to take any special measures because the disease usually doesn’t harm the fruits.
Juneberries begin to bear fruits in their third or fourth year. Harvest them quickly—before they drop, dry up, or are eaten by the birds. You can eat them right off the tree or cook them, complementing their sweetness with one of the season’s tarter fruits, such as currants. For traditional American fare, cook juneberries with rhubarb, or pound the dried berries with meat (preferably buffalo) to make pemmican, a staple of the Native American tribes of the prairies.
Photo: (cc) Se Neko/Flickr
Want to grow a “tropical” fruit in a temperate climate? Try a pawpaw (or “Hoosier banana,” as it is sometimes called), the northernmost member of the custard apple family and cousin to the cherimoya and soursop. The 10- to 25-foot trees (Asimina triloba) are native to woodlands from New York to Georgia and west to Nebraska, but their lush, drooping leaves give them an exotic appeal. The smooth, creamy fruits taste something like a banana with hints of mango and pineapple. They often weigh as much as a pound apiece.
You can grow pawpaws if you live within Zones 5 through 8. They are small, deciduous trees with purple flowers. The flowers aren’t very prominent, but they do appear late enough in spring to escape frosts. Plant the trees in well-drained soil and be sure to dig a hole deep enough to accommodate their long taproots. You’ll probably get the most fruits from a tree planted in full sun, but pawpaws are woodland natives, so light shade is okay, too, especially in the first year or two. Be patient—the trees grow slowly at first.
For the best fruits, plant ‘Overleese’, ‘Mitchell’, ‘Taytwo’, or ‘Sunflower’, advises the PawPaw Foundation, which promotes research and development of pawpaw cultivars. Plant at least two different varieties to ensure good fruiting. As further insurance, you could hand-pollinate the flowers with an artist’s brush: Dust the brown pollen from one plant’s flowers onto the shiny green, ripe stigmas of another. (In the wild, beetles and flies pollinate pawpaw flowers, but you may not have enough of these natural pollinators around to do the job for you.)
Pawpaws taste best if harvested when their yellowish skins become speckled with brown, a sign of full ripeness. For milder flavor, pick slightly underripe fruits and allow them to finish ripening indoors at room temperature. Delay ripening by storing them in the refrigerator before setting them out to ripen. Each mature tree will yield about 25 to 50 pounds of fruits a season.
The “proper” way to eat a pawpaw is to cut it in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon, but the fruit is just as tasty if you peel back the skin and eat it like a banana. If you decide to cook your pawpaws, don’t go overboard on sweetener or you’ll steal their naturally good flavor.
Photo: (cc) Frank Enstoen/Flickr
The name says it all: Mayhaw (Crataegus aestivalis, C. opaca, and C. rufula) is a southern edible hawthorn that ripens in May. The fruits vary in color from yellow to bright red, range in size from 1/3 to 2/3 inch across, and taste similar to a tart crabapple.
The broad-topped thorny trees are an attractive addition to the landscape—especially in early spring when they burst into a cloud of white to pale pink blossoms. They grow about 25 feet high and should be spaced at least 20 feet apart.
Plant at least two mayhaws to ensure cross-pollination and maximum fruit production. The trees grow and produce best when planted in well-drained, slightly acidic soil in Zones 6 to 9. (Although the trees are hardy to 15°F, they don’t fruit well in Zones 5 and colder.)
In most regions, you won’t need to do much to maintain an established mayhaw tree other than harvest it. The easiest way to do that is to spread a sheet under the tree and shake it. The fruits typically ripen over a period of several weeks. Expect a 5-year-old tree to yield about 5 gallons of fruits.
You can pop the mayhaws right into your mouth—fresh off the tree—but most people prefer to cook the fruits into marmalades, preserves, and desserts. Old-timers from the Deep South claim that mayhaws make the best jelly in the world. If you want to try your hand at mayhaw jelly, expect to get about 6 pints of jelly for every 6 quarts of fruit. As with pawpaws, though, go easy on the sweetener, or you’ll mask the distinctive mayhaw flavor.
Photo: (cc) Leslie Seaton/Flickr
The mulberry’s fruits look like blackberries but range in color from deep black to red to lavender to pure white. Their flavor ranges from strictly sweet to tangy sweet. Many "wild" mulberries actually aren’t fully native, but are “half-breeds”—the result of a cross between our native red mulberry (Morus rubra) and the Chinese white mulberry (M. alba), which was introduced in the 19th century for the silkworm industry. Although some female trees need a male pollinator, many cultivars set fruit without pollination.
If given full sun and well-drained soil, mulberry trees are practically carefree. Provide plenty of growing space, however, because mature mulberry trees can reach 30 feet or more in both height and spread. Also try to find a site away from walkways and driveways so that the ripe fruits don’t stain them or your shoes!
Plant container-grown stock any time the ground isn’t frozen, or set out bareroot plants in spring or fall, while they are dormant. Space plants 10 to 30 feet apart. Mulberries are easy to care for: no need to prune, and you can handle dieback by simply cutting off infected portions.
Birds like the red mulberry’s acidic red fruits, but you’re more likely to enjoy the sweeter hybrids. The most widely available cultivar, ‘Illinois Everbearing’, grows well throughout most of North America and bears large, tasty, nearly seedless fruits throughout the summer. And like most mulberry varieties, it needs no cross-pollination. Although birds may eat lots of your mulberries, mature trees generally produce enough fruit for you and the birds.
Mulberries ripen over the course of several weeks. To harvest mulberries in quantity, spread a clean sheet under the tree and shake the branches. Ripe fruits do not keep well fresh, but they can be dried. For cooking, pick the fruit when it is slightly underripe.
Photo: (cc) Isabel Eyre/Flickr
Keep Reading: Regional Guide for Native Trees