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.
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.
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.