Ornamental garden fruits

There is no accounting for taste, we all may like completely different fruits, or not according to whim or habit. However most of us very rarely grow or enjoy anything other than the unremarkable; apples, pears, strawberries, raspberries, plums and so on. These are the main subjects for every fruit book. More comprehensive books venture further with medlars, mulberries, Boysenberries, blueberries maybe even Japonica quinces. Yet there are many more fruits with just as interesting flavours in our hedgerows and flower gardens going ungathered and effectively unseen.

Now admittedly most are so tart they need combining with sugar as jellies, conserves or cordials to be enjoyed. However these are already productive and easy, all they need is a little selection and improvement for size and sweetness and they could rival the modern strawberry. (This did not exist in any form before the Victorian age when a small tasty Virginian species was crossed with a bigger blander Chilean species; the resulting cross gave rise to all our modern cultivars.) Anyway back to the point; we only grow a few fruits in our orchards and cages and could have many more.

As gardens are getting smaller and there is inevitable pressure for the pretty to steal space from the productive so then more ornamental edibles or rather more edible ornamentals seems the necessary solution. We need more plants that are both decorative and produce edible fruits- leaves for spinach or edible roots are also useful but nowhere near as appealing. Although leaves could be harvested with little difficulty roots involves major disruption, fruits are freely produced and easily collected.

Note- Be very careful with what you gather and be sure of your identification. And also bear in mind you may get upset insides simply from eating too many plums so be cautious with the amount of novel items you enjoy initially.

Now most of us know that elderberries were once used for jelly but have you ever tried it? It’s superb and probably every bit as valuable in vitamins and anthocyanins as any ‘wonder fruit’. Remarkably easy to grow from cuttings or seed this is a shrub that really could be rapidly improved. (I’m trying to hybridise it with Sambucus caerula, the Blue-berried elder from California.) Elderberries like many other wild fruits were used for making wines, indeed some still do. Some also make Sloe gin but as with so many other country ways and customs it’s disappearing. Likewise we’re aware rose hips were made into vitamin c rich syrup during WWII, yet with many hundreds if not thousands of varieties few have been selected for bigger sweeter hips- though some have gained them for solely ornamental purposes. And in a similar vein there are countless Fuchsias- yet again all developed for their flowers and not their fruits. These are sweet and bland with barely noticeable seeds and make excellent jellies- and some reach no mean size; the California Dreamer series have thrown some as big as my thumb. (F. corymbosa has been recommended by a grower as having very tasty fruits and may be a good starting point.) What a new and interesting plant a bigger sweeter cropping Fuchsia might be!

The common Rowan tree has masses of berries which again were used to make jelly- one especially good with game, indeed so good it’s still sold in delicatessens though few try it. The Victorians bred a better Rowan with bigger sweeter berries; Sorbus aucuparia edulis, (aka Moravica or dulcis) Rossica Major is available from a handful of nurseries. Many other related species are also productive of edible berries but we have long forgotten them. Sorbus aria, the Whitebeam and S. domestica, the Service tree fruits were once sold on the streets of London, bletted (half rotted) as with Medlars, another disappearing fruit. The Wild Service tree or Chequers, has small berries so sour you hardly believe they could have been enjoyed, yet were apparently liked by children (half starving I imagine). (All these, as with apples, have seeds containing cyanides so these should not be consumed in any quantity.)

We have likewise forgotten, except as an ornamental for it’s early yellow blooms, the Cornelian Cherry, Cornus mas. This was once much esteemed, the red berries much resembling rosehips though sour and hard to enjoy raw. Better forms were selected on the continent and known as Sorbets, from which we derive our name for frozen sweetened fruit juice. Other Cornus from around the world offer bigger more palatable fruits; such as C. capitata, kousa chinensis, macrophylla, stolonifera and suecica, so these give a huge potential for better tastier hybrids, though admittedly many of these, other than C. mas, like moist acid soil somewhat restricting their immediate usefulness.

We may have Myrtle in our gardens, popular since Classical times yet few make the jam which resembles a sort of piney blackcurrant, it’s still sold in Mediterranean countries. There are a couple of near relations from South America, Myrtus ugni, the Chilean Guava Myrtle, and Luma apiculata, the Arrayan, both a tad more tender, but with delicious fruits that really must be tried. (Incidentally have you noticed myrtle flowers smell of garlic sausage? A strange choice in bridal bouquets for which myrtle was traditional!)

Often brought as seed from a Mediterranean holiday the Loquat, Eriobotrys, has huge leathery leaves, is hardy and does fruit in southern England but needs a little selection to be earlier and more reliable for it’s tasty apricot like fruits.

Some may grow another Classical favourite, the Strawberry tree, Arbutus. This fruit, which vaguely resembles a strawberry in appearance not flavour, is still used for liqueurs and apparently enjoyed fresh by some though it is in sore need of improvement. Indeed as one scholar remarked- unedo translates as “eat one only”.

A North American shrub, Mahonia aquifolium, was once sold as Oregon Grapes, and the blue black berries are prolifically produced yet now seldom gathered. The closely related wild Berberis or Barberry was another popular country fruit in many countries now overlooked though still garden favourites. The wild B. vulgaris is frightfully sour but makes delicious jelly, it was once so popular it’s planting had to be controlled (also because it was considered to spread wheat rust.) B. buxifolia is considered the better eating and the very common B. darwinii is enjoyed in many countries still.

And we have all totally forgotten that Hawthorn berries are edible, if not tasty, closely resembling their near relation the apple in miniature. However around the Mediterranean another species Crataegus azarolus, the Azarole, with a bigger blander berry is still consumed- though now mostly as a flavouring for liqueurs. The North American species C. tomentosa, flava, douglasii and mollis were all consumed by the natives- though most often as the dried fruits preserved for winter.

The American native peoples were good at living off the land and consumed many fruits we would find too mouth puckering without sugar so they must have had very different tastes to us. Still with extra sugar we can turn these same fruits into more jellies and thus make them palatable to us. The American Aronia melanocarpa has long been grown in shrubberies for it’s stunning autumn colours. However it also produces blackcurrant like berries- known as Chokeberries from their astringency, these make excellent jam or jelly when mixed with apple puree as they don’t set well on their own. They have an extremely high vitamin C level and their juice is often added to improve pomegranate juice. Amelanchiers canadensis, Snowy Mespilus, is another American shrub, grown for it’s masses of white flowers it’s only happy on neutral or acid moist soil, but then produces red berries ripening to purple or black some of which can even be eaten raw. Several other similar species, alnifolia and spicata for example, were eaten and give opportunity for cross breeding.

The Highbush Cranberry is an edible Viburnum berry, V. trilobum, which was very popular with native Americans. We were all warned as children not to eat Guelder Rose berries, V. opulus, though these have been cooked and consumed in Europe and Asia for centuries to no obvious detriment. (The foliage is poisonous though so beware.) Other Viburnums such as lentago, nudum and particularly prunifolium have edible berries again offering fantastic scope for cross breeding. Another common shrub family, Elaeagnus, has many edible berried species such as angustifolia, the Oleaster, still popular in Europe and known as the Wild Olive. E. commutata the Silver Berry, multiflora/edulis and orientalis are other possibilities.

America has also given us many other, usually acid loving, shrubby fruits. Gaultheria procumbens the Checker or Teaberry, Mitchella repens the Partridge, Squaw or Twin berry and Shepherdia argentea, the Buffalo berry. Smilacina racemosa, the Treacle berry is a gorgeous addition to the herbaceous border with Hosta like leaves and scented foamy flowers followed by red berries, though sadly not in profusion. Podophyllum peltatum and P. emodi have very poisonous herbaceous foliage with strange edible fruits possible of development.

Found naturally by the seashore the Sea Buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides, is frequently covered in orange berries, again mouth puckeringly astringent but making tart jellies and sauces especially good with fish. The Hottentot Fig, Carpobrotus edulis, once a Mesembryanthemum, is found gone native on south westerly cliffs and produces small chewy brown ‘figs’, easy of culture this has never been improved though closely related garden varieties are still popular for sunny warm spots. Often also found gone native in the same place is the Wolf berry, Box thorn, or The Duke of Argyll’s Tea Plant, now known as the Goji berry, Lycium barbarum, now sold as the latest wonder fruit. However it’s not good eating and really needs improvement. And the Honeyberry, Lonicera caerula var. Kamschitica is now being distributed for it’s blueberry like berries (be warned most other Honeysuckle berries are poisonous) though these are far more palatable than the Goji.

There are many many more, however the best unknown fruit of all is Cephalotaxus, this small genus of remarkably yew like shrubs are called Cow’s-tail Pines or Chinese or Japanese Plum Yews. These will grow and fruit in heavy shade, an unusual ability, on most moist soils even chalky, although needing both a male and female to crop. The olive sized plum like fruit is sweet, edible and with a flavour much resembling butterscotch. More than with almost all the others above how have we managed to overlook developing this!