Fruit trees and shrubs are a great way to expand your backyard food production beyond the vegetable garden. When I was growing up, we had a peach tree, a persimmon tree, blackberries, and wild plums to graze on, and my grandmother kept us supplied us with raspberries, Concord grapes, and apples. For a while, I lived on the West coast, where I had Meyer lemons, oranges, and apples in my yard. I’ll never forget the taste of the first glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice made from oranges picked that morning in my own back yard.
Native North American fruits were often overlooked by European settlers. They gamely tried some of the new fruits that the native peoples introduced to them, but for the most part, they really missed the fruits that they were used to eating “back home.” So, they imported them. Apples, cherries, pears, oranges, lemons, limes….all were introduced to North America by settlers. It makes the phrase “American as apple pie” seem kind of funny in retrospect.
The three main native fruit crops sold commercially are cranberries, American grapes, and blueberries. I wrote about cranberries, which include four species in the genus Vaccinium, here and here; the primary commercial cranberry is American cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon. In the same genus as cranberries, blueberries are cultivated and grown in the wild throughout the continent. The most common species are Northern highbush, V. corymbosum and lowbush, blueberry, V. angustifolium. The American grape, Vitis labrusca, is also called fox grape. Tmost well-known cultivar of the American grape is the Concord grape, Vitis x labrusca, which was developed by a grower in Concord, Mass. in 1849. Other varieties of the American grape are the Catawba, Delaware, and Niagara grape.
Lesser-known native fruits include the American Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), beach plum (Prunus maritima), and saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). And let’s not forget the scuppernong, a grape-on-steroids that is native to the Southeastern U.S.
Two that I find particularly interesting are the American persimmon, (Diospyros virginiana), the fruit of my childhood, and the pawpaw (Asimina triloba). The American persimmon isn’t as big as the Chinese persimmons that you sometimes see in supermarkets and I remember if you eat one before its time, it’s very sour. But a ripe American persimmon tastes heavenly, maybe like an apricot but sort of honey-ish and pumpkin-y. The fruit ripens in the fall, usually after all the leaves have fallen off. I remember that it was usually pretty messy underneath that tree.
I’ve never tasted a pawpaw or even seen one for that matter, but I’m really intrigued by this fruit. It seems like an under appreciated delight; I can’t for the life of me figure out why they’re not more popular. In an article in this month’s Audubon magazine, author Lee Reich describes their taste as “a congenial mix of vanilla custard, banana, mango, and avocado–which makes it a fine substitute for creme brulee (without the fat and sugar.)”
Doesn’t that sound fabulous!? I must taste this fruit.
Pawpaws look like a tropical fruit–the fruits look like mangoes and grow in clusters like bananas. But since they’re native to Eastern North America, they grow in temperate zones. They’re found naturally south of New England to north of Florida and west to Nebraska. Supposedly they can be grown in cold zones such as New England, though they are reputed to be hard to establish.
Pictured above, from top to bottom, are Concord grapes (courtesy of Wikipedia), scuppernong (courtesy of the State Library of North Carolina), American persimmon (courtesy of Cornell University) and pawpaw (courtesy of Wikipedia).