Fruits are good for us. They are the only food nature wants us to eat. Forget vegetarianism; lettuce, leeks and carrots no more want to be eaten than does a chicken. But fruits, well fruits are sweet sugary bribes to get us to spread the seeds. It is what plants want to do, it is their nature to fruit so they happily show improvement with a little selection. Our modern apples and pears are a long way from the wild crab. The strawberry of today did not exist at all but two centuries go. We only had small sorts such as the alpine and wild woodland ones. It was the crossing of a tasty small Virginian with a big tasteless Chilean that has given us all our modern varieties.
Some fruits have been highly improved while others are much the same as when the Romans new them, especially those that are plentiful in the wild. Many potential new dessert fruits are waiting in the wings to be developed. It may take only one cross to get a new big sweet fruit as delicious as a strawberry. Sadly most of what are currently known, available and edible may not be tasty as they might be and need sweetening. Most make fantastic jams and jellies. But we have forgotten so much- Lime chocolate used to be made from the seeds and flowers of Tilia trees but how has been lost.
We no longer pick much from the wild so we have forgotten those fruits that were commonly picked and preserved and now many of these plants have become ornamentals. More variety is good for us and especially more highly coloured fruit varieties so consider more dual purpose planting. Fill ornamental areas with ‘wild’ fruits disguised as ornamentals. And if theft is a problem then they are unlikely to spot these oddities whereas every thief knows the commoner fruits.
Most kitchen gardeners will have some of the couple of thousand varieties of apples and pears, and some may have a couple of quinces, but few have Asian Pears or Medlars. The Asian pear looks like a russet apple but tastes crunchy and perfumed, self fertile, heavy cropping and immune to most pests and diseases this is much neglected. Whereas a Medlar is a specialized taste, being bletted or part decomposed before being enjoyed. Try one before planting a field full. The Medlar closely resembles a Rose, another fruit that could be developed into something much better. Although the syrup is well known no rose has been bred for huge dessert hips.
Likewise with the stone fruits there are countless plums, apricots, peaches, nectarines, cherries, damsons, bullaces and Mirabelles but few consider cooking the purple leaved plum tree fruits in the ornamental garden. Yet some of these are excellent and make great dual purpose trees. Flowering almonds are not much prettier than fruiting ones, the cherries likewise.
Figs are making a come back but did you know there are many dozens of varieties. Even Mulberries come in black, red and white berried forms, would not a dwarf form be so useful.
To say little of the Rubus hordes you can choose from for blackberries, raspberries, loganberries, Boysenberries and Tayberries et al. The species are even more interesting such as the Japanese Wineberry with it’s attractive foliage and tasty little berries and the Salmonberry and Thimbleberries. As well as these the US has a whole range of red and black raspberries different from ours and many of these can be grown from seed. What an opportunity for cross breeding.
Funnily these never cross with the closely related Ribes. There are many dozens more gooseberries than you come across at the garden centre -they come in red, white, green, yellow and black, big and small, I love Langley Gage a small sweet white. The Worcesterberry is like a species gooseberry, thorny suckering with a lovely flavoured jam but evil to work near. The Josta is a similar but safer alternative of a huge growing thornless gooseberry crossed with a blackcurrant and well worth the space for the huge crops. Of course there are countless actual black currants, and many varieties of both red and white and pink currants. But oddly no other hybrids of any of these with any other Ribes or Rubus. Might prove interesting to try harder?
Blueberries now getting popular actually come in several forms the highbush, the lowbush and the rabbit’s eye. And there are dozens and dozens of similar relations such as all the native bilberries and blaeberries, here and in North America. Likewise we have native cranberries but they are nowhere near as good as the American cultivated ones. Indeed there is a whole world of edible acid lovers with Gaultherias and Gaylussacias all once loved by the native Americans for their sweet berries but now neglected.
Smilacina racemosa is a delightful scented foamy headed herbaceous plant but the Indians knew it as the Treacle berry and ate the red berries it sometimes produces. And another better known ornamental the Snowy Mespilus or Amelanchier also had it’s berries relished. They even ate Aronia melanocarpa aka Chokeberries so I guess their stomachs may be stronger than ours. None the less Aronia is a beautiful colouring shrub for autumn and it’s fruits are like piney blackcurrants, very rich in vitamins though hard to set as jam. And Huckleberries come both from a plant closely related to blueberries but another Huckleberry seems indistinguishable from our woody nightshades. And from the Old World Myrtle fruits are rather similar but make a much more exquisite jam. The flowers smell oddly of garlic sausage. There are dozens of near hardy myrtle relatives most with interesting fruits, M. ugni is particularly good. The Loquat is another interesting fruit that already grows and very occasionally crops in the UK with tart apricot like fruits. It has very big evergreen leaves and makes a big shrub or small tree eventually. The Kiwi has several lesser known cousins all of which similarly make vigorous tree coverers carrying strange fuzzy fruits.
Very little known outside Fuchsia societies is how good fuchsia jelly can be. As with the rose all the development has been with the flower and the edible berries are neglected- a food for the future for sure. There are many species and thousands of varieties yet no-one offers a big sweet berried form- the California Dreamer series have given me fruits as big as my thumb! Another ornamental is the Mesembryanthemum, which has gone native on our sea shores- well know for the gay flowers the plants feely produce little ‘Hottentot figs’. Prickly pears have edible fruits as do many other cacti most of which are not difficult to grow here, even outdoors in some places.
Sea Buckthorn is about the toughest seaside plant there is yet it’s orange berries make a good tart jelly excellent with cold fatty meats. It may be the next wonder fruit as it is very nutritionally interesting. But you would not eat them raw! Neither would you Arbutus unedo or the Strawberry tree which has failed singularly failed to impress me but some like the unusual fruit, the Californian Madrona looks better but isn’t and I’m sure both could be much improved. North America has produced a lot of unusual fruits and one really odd one, Asimina triloba. This is a hardy paw paw and was introduced to us in 1736, the odd fruits are rarely formed in the UK but offer great potential. Likewise there is a North American passion flower the Maypops, this might be crossed with the hardy blue Passiflora caerula to give something better than either. Already the form P caerula racemosa has red not grey pulp and a slightly bigger smear of it, but not enough to get excited about.
Poncirus is the hardiest citrus relative, brutally thorny very architectural and slow growing, it eventually produces funny little fuzzy oranges. Again a little improvement and we could have a new delight. There has been some breeding already crossing this with other citrus but the results are slow coming.
What can be done is shown with Mountain Ash, Sorbus aucuparia, where a much bigger berried form, edulis was developed in Victorian times. In the Mediterranean they have a bigger fruited Hawthorn Crataegus azarolus so good some eat them raw, C. mollis has big fruits good for jelly- and huge thorns. Our common Berberis species and Mahonia both have edible berries now little gathered though Mahonia berries were once sold as Oregon grapes. These again could respond to crossing and selection producing a tough evergreen cropper for shady gardens. Elaeagnus angustifolia and the silvery E. argentea both have almost tasty berries already becoming folk memories.
Even Elderberries are rarely gathered as they once were, people now fearing strange fruits. True they can give you stomach ache eaten raw in quantity but are safe as the cooked jelly, indeed positively virtuous, and other species are better such as the American blue berried elderberry, Sambucus caerula. Though of course with both the foliage is poisonous.
Viburnums are likewise- the dreaded V. opulus Guelder rose is also not good raw but delicious made into a jelly and can even be substituted for cranberries. But you have to be careful; not every species is edible. Or every part- it is said you can eat the red aril of the Yew berry but not the seed or the foliage, and I have found the first part so but can’t recommend it. Lonicera is another such genus where parts and even some species berries are poisonous and yet there are ones such as L. edulis with edible berries. Cornus another, C. mas makes a good jelly and has been improved in the Mediterranean regions where it is known as Sorbet. The bigger fruited C. capitata and C. Kuosa are liked by some- but again are crying out for improvement. Celtis are the Nettle trees and these grow well for us but like the Sweet chestnut only crop after a couple of good summers and autumns, Their fruits are eaten widely in the Mediterranean and North America but rarely offered commercially. As with Zizyphus, this may be the Lotus that captivated Greek sailors but certainly this large genus is full of edible yet almost completely unknown fruits, although on the margins of fruiting for us.
But my vote for one of the weirdest and yet best of all is Cephalotaxis, the Chinese plum yews. These are a small genus which look just like a yew, grows very slowly and thrives in wet shady places, but even on chalky soils. It produces small plum or olive like fruits that I find surprisingly sweet with a hint of piney butterscotch.