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Fruit | New World Seeds & Tubers

Botanical explorer Captain F. Kingdon-Ward wrote a book titled “Berried Treasure” published in 1954. He was interested in looking at the berries, not so much eating them. It’s a book about shrubs suitable for England that produce attractive fruit.

I like looking at attractive berries too, but these days I’m also interested in eating them. In fact, now that I’m psychologically primed to notice overlooked sources of food, I’m finding them all over the place, often in unexpected places. This particular post will focus on a few garden plants I’m familiar with that have berries prone to being overlooked as food. These are mostly not things you would plant primarily for fruit, but rather, things you might make good use of if you already had them in your yard.

My list isn’t necessarily going to be the same as yours, because the mix of shrubs and trees that I am familiar with or happen to have in my garden is likely to be different from yours. This is mostly just an exercise in thinking about food resources that might not have occurred to you before, though a few in my list are quite common.


Typical Vireya

Ornament is probably what the proprietors of Bovee’s Nursery in Portland have in mind for their Vaccineums and Agapetes. They call them “companion plants” for Rhododendrons. Their specialties are the beautiful Vireya Rhododendrons. Vireyas are distinct Rhododendrons of the tropical highlands (mostly). They’re not edible by the way; I just happen to have a picture, and want to put the story into context.

I was happy to have finally gotten the chance to visit, and meet Lucy Sorenson in person. We have corresponded a bit for decades but had never actually met. She was absolutely charming, and delighted to meet someone who appreciates Vaccineums and Agapetes not to mention Vireyas.

If the genus is Vaccineum, it’s worth evaluating the berries for potential food use. Vaccineums include Blueberries, Huckleberries, and Cranberries. The names are not used consistently, but here is one theory: Blueberries have more, smaller, unobtrusive seeds, and berries in clusters. Huckleberries have fewer, bigger seeds, and berries that show up singly or in pairs. Cranberries have red berries. That said, these distinctions don’t seem to be particularly meaningful with respect to actual usage.

At Bovees I bought Vaccineum ovatum x V. floribundum. One parent of the cross, V. ovatum, is the Evergreen Huckleberry of the Pacific Coast states. It’s a fairly common, big, bushy, shade-loving but tolerant plant with abundant but unfortunately small and usually fairly sour fruit. V. floribundum is the Andean Blueberry, also known as the Mortiña, from around Ecuador through Columbia, and apparently also in Costa Rica. Both plants are evergreen and have beautifully colored new foliage. Mortiña berries are harvested where native but have never become popular outside of habitat. I’ve planted some seeds in pots outside; we’ll see if they were viable. The hybrid might be useful for combining a very tough, hardy plant with a species that probably has bigger and better fruit.

Lucy gave me what might be a Vaccineum erythrinum, the Javanese Cranberry. It’s a rare plant, though I have seen it in old botanical prints; it’s one of the showier of the genus. No idea how cold-hardy it is and I find varying estimates on the few webpages I can find for it. Probably not very.


Agapetes blossoms

Almost but not quite as rare, and perhaps even showier, are some of the Agapetes of tropical and subtropical Asia. Notice the Greek root-word agape, which ever since the New Testament has come to mean something like “divine love”. Agapetes are closely-related to Blueberries and you can see the relationship if you use your imagination. They live a different lifestyle though, which accounts for some of their differences; they’re quasi-epiphytic (they often grow perched on trees) and clambering. At their base is a woody caudex, from which sprout long slender shoots that weave their way around. They are beautifully suited to hanging baskets.

They produce edible, blueberry-like fruits.

As is common among highland tropicals/subtropicals, they require fairly mild, equable climates. They do well along the Pacific Coast and much of maritime Europe, with the understanding that they need protection from deep or prolonged freezes where those occur. The hardiest one I am aware of in cultivation is a hybrid called ‘Ludvgan Cross’; it can make it down to around -10C/14F once the caudex is well-established. Sometimes Agapetes freeze to the caudex but re-sprout.

Viburnum trilobum has sour bright red berries that are said to make good substitutes for Cranberries, hence the common name “Highbush Cranberry”. It is not, however, a cranberry, being in the wrong family. It is very rarely exploited, due to having been mixed up with its lookalike European cousin, V. opulus. I’ve been told “one bite and you’ll know the difference”: V. opulus has fruit that is bitter in addition to being sour. V. trilobum fruit is sour but not bitter.

To render the fruit of Viburnum trilobum palatable, first you freeze them and thaw them to soften them, then you strain out the seeds, which are bitter. Then you make mock cranberry jelly or mock cranberry juice out of them.

Last time I tried the berries of the native Gaultheria shallon (“Salal” in its native range; known to flower arrangers elsewhere as “Lemon Leaf”), I remember being skeptical of their palatability. The berries of its eastern cousin G. procumbens are reputedly better and used to be a common flavoring especially where they are native.

Gaultheria’s counterparts of the southern hemisphere, the Pernettyas, which some taxonomists are lumping into Gaultheria, have a reputation for intoxicating or even delirium-producing berries. Some of my friends claim that their reputation is exaggerated. I am reluctant to find out by personal experience–names like “Pernettya insana” strike me as being ominous.

Pernettya mucronata undoubtedly has poor-eating fruit anyway–even birds rarely touch them–but those berries are certainly very attractive. The plants vary in how many male or female flowers they have, so make sure you’ve got both to get fruit.

“Strawberry trees”–Arbutus unedo–extremely common around here, but the mildly sweet fruit is bland and mealy. Maybe it’s only a matter of coming up with a use for them.

Mahonia berries are beautiful and look like they should be delicious, but when I tried them I found them resinous in taste. The same is true for a number of other berries native here. I have however heard of other people eating them, probably cooking them and adding sugar and maybe lemon. Lemon seems to be a common ingredient to improve the flavor of unimproved fruits. Sometimes certain spices help too.

Berberis is related to Mahonia, and reputedly some of the Chilean Berberis have good fruit. The plants tend to be rather attractive too.

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Outside of the tropics, most sweet fruits come from woody plants, usually trees but grapes and a few others come from woody vines.

Crops from persistent, woody plants have both advantages and drawbacks. For the typical backyard gardener, fruits that grow on hardy or quick-growing annual herbaceous plants require less cost up-front, are easier to replace, bear crops quickly, and do not over-grow the scale of their backyard setting.

That’s why we like some of the other fruit-bearing crops of Solanaceae above and beyond the better-known but not particularly “fruity” fruits tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.

A single Nightshade, the notorious Atropa belladonna, better known as “Deadly Nightshade”, has given the rest of them a bad name. Most Nightshades contain some toxic alkaloids, but not typically as potent as those of the Deadly Nightshade.

I have to admit that I am shy about eating the greens of any Nightshade, even the ones that supposedly contain negligible alkaloid, but I’ll eat their fruits if I know they’re safe. It un-nerves a lot of visitors to my garden that I sometimes pop the raw fruit of “garden huckleberries” into my mouth.

Mine are the type known as “Wonderberries”, whose origins have not been agreed-upon. Luther Burbank (who called them “Sunberries”-you know, they’re jet black just like the sun (sarcasm)) claimed to have bred it crossing Solanum villosum and S. guineense. His contemporary detractors claimed it is just S. nigrum. However, at least some S. nigrum seem to be somewhat toxic. Avoid–spit out–any Nightshade berries that have bitter or bittersweet tastes.

Some have decided the Wonderberry is S. retroflexum. Sometimes it’s mixed up with S. scabrum, a similar-looking African species used as a pot-herb rather than as a fruit (very unusual for the family!).

Whatever it is, it’s easy to grow. It blooms and sets berries precociously, grows cooler than tomatoes do, and is more disease-resistant than either tomatoes or potatoes. Interestingly they seem to naturalize more easily than most annuals do, so you don’t necessarily have to replant them every year–you can let them reseed around the garden wherever they find an open spot.

The flavor is a little bland but they make adequate mock blueberries for blueberry muffins. They are far more disease-resistant and less fussy than real blueberries, and they’re prolific too.

Our good buddy Tim Peters developed one that has a little sweeter flavor than is typical.

The photo at the top of this article is of a Jaltomato. This is the first year I’ve grown them so I don’t know much about them. Some internet informants (all copying the same information verbatim) claim they “taste like grape and tomatoes”. I haven’t had one yet so I can’t confirm. So far as is typical of these sorts of Solanaceous fruits they seem to be very easy to grow and precocious to bear fruit.

They could be even easier to raise if you didn’t have to bother seeding them into trays every year. Some of the plants discussed in this article are annuals. Perennials are also cheap and quick to establish, and don’t require you to start them in trays every year as most annuals would. For better or worse unlike Wonderberries they’re more prone to staying in one spot.

The genus Physalis contains both annuals and perennials. There’s a three-way tradeoff between longevity, fruit quality, and coldhardiness: several of the species with palatable fruit are annuals, and the exception, P. peruviana (the “Cape Gooseberry”), is a highland tropical species tolerating only very mild frost.

We think we can probably work out a way to get it all: perennial, good-tasting, and cold-hardy. I think such a thing could be a popular backyard crop.

If you’ve never had them before, it’s probably worth pointing out that “Cape Gooseberry” is probably a poor name for them; they’re not really from the “Cape” (though I have heard this is actually a reference to the husk not the Cape of Good Hope), and they don’t taste like gooseberries. They taste more like tomatoes but slightly sweeter and with mild plum-like flavors.

I’ve mostly ever eaten them fresh and raw, though with their high pectin content they can be made into jellies and jams. I looked up a recipe for same and found that it called for added lemons, which makes me wonder if their delicate flavor survives cooking.

I’ve also had them dried, but they make poor substitutes for raisins, being too seedy.

I first encountered Solanum sisymbriifolium being grown in the UK as an ornamental. They might have some trouble ripening the fruit in the UK; it’s a fairly heat-loving plant. The whole plant, from its spiny dissected foliage to its white or preferably pale blue flowers, to its fruits that are a shade of red just a little more vivid than tomato-red, is fairly attractive. The flowers of the specimen in the photograph started the season pale blue, but have faded as the season went on.

I still tend to think of it as being a primarily ornamental plant that bears the bonus of a few edible fruits, but I may not have given it enough credit. For one thing, although not a particularly prolific bearer, the fruit quality is considered good enough for pies. It might bear more heavily if it survives your winters; it’s a semi-woody subtropical perennial.

Some people take advantage of the spininess by using them as deterrents to animals invading their vegetable beds.

Two more plants we tried in this family are not easily adaptable; they’re highland tropical species from the “land of eternal spring”, with little tolerance for heat or cold, and some hard-to-accommodate restrictions on blooming and setting fruit.

But they are very beautiful plants, and one of them reputedly has superb fruit. The first is the Naranjilla, Solanum quitoense.

Note the attractive purple veins and purple cast on the leaves. The fruit has some green on its interior walls, making attractive slices and dice–sort of reminds me of GREEN ZEBRA tomato! I wish I had some flowers or fruit to show you, but even in the tropics it is not a precocious bloomer, and it might be unwilling to bloom during long days of northern summers anyway.

In its native countries, the fruit is typically either juiced and sweetened, or cut into slices or wedges and salted like many people do tomatoes.

I don’t know if there’s anything we’ll be able to do for it to make it easier to grow. Right now it’s just for fun.

The Pepino, Solanum muricatum might be ever-so-slightly easier to raise, as it tolerates a few degrees of frost. Nothing particularly hard or prolonged though. It’s already in production in various warm-temperate climates such as in Chile, New Zealand, and Spain.

I’ve never had the fruit, but it is reputedly melon-like, hence one common name, the “Pepino Melon”. It’s not a melon though; wrong family.

We haven’t tried to grow Cyphomandra betacea, the “Tree Tomato”, yet, and might not ever bother because it’s an inconveniently large shrub to try to protect from frost, which it has little tolerance for. We’ll probably try its cousin C. corybiflora, which is cold-hardy enough to survive our winters, but its fruit is reputedly less agreeable than that of the tree-tomato. Hybrids are possible but tend to be sterile.

I can remember tree-tomatoes being hawked in Sunday newspaper inserts. The copywriters went over-the-top with hype. Reputedly they don’t taste all that much like real tomatoes, although some people do make sauce out of them after adding some sugar and salt.

I suppose that brings up another point: most of these fruits have the names of other fruits in their common names, typically “_tomato” while the Pepino is often referred to as a “melon” and the Wonderberry and similar fruits are referred to as types of “huckleberries”. The “Litchee Tomato” is ostensibly both a litchee and a tomato!

The names that imply comparisons are probably a result of trying to set expectations for relatively obscure or exotic fruits. We suggest that the ones that are easy and inexpensive to grow from seed are worth taking a chance on, and appreciating them for their own qualities regardless of comparisons to other fruits.

As for the more exotic ones, some of them have narrow tolerances for day-length and temperature. For now those are probably novelties for people who live in mild-temperate climates such as those of New Zealand, Tasmania, and coastal California. Stay tuned to see if we can do anything to make them easier to grow.

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