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Unusual Fruits

Don't limit your fruit garden to the usual suspects – branch out with some lesser known choices that look every bit as good as they taste

The great thrill of growing your own fresh food can’t be overstated. It’s all about the joy of experiencing the cleanest, purest-tasting fruit and vegetables you simply can’t find in the shops. It’s also the journey of discovery in trying out something a little different from the usual run-of-the-mill offerings.

For example, you only have to compare the choice of salads on display in the average supermarket with the epic number of varieties on offer to the home grower. Gardening enthusiasts enjoy a wider range of produce flavours, colours and textures – no wonder we’re a happy bunch!

But even the vast pool of crops open to us can eventually become well tried and tested. Where does the adventurous kitchen gardener turn to for something truly unusual, to get the tastebuds tingling in anticipation? The answer lies in the many fruiting shrubs and trees that we all too often overlook or simply don’t know about. These include relatively under-planted stalwarts such as the quince and cranberry-like lingonberry, which many will have heard of if not grown, to rare curiosities that deserve wider recognition.

You may well already grow some of these unusual fruits, without realising that those shiny berries are in fact an edible treat! Take the hardy shrub varieties of fuchsia, the pretty myrtle or the fruits of the mahonia – all are edible, yet how many of us have thought to eat a few of their berries? With space limited in the majority of British gardens, fruiting shrubs with both decorative and edible appeal are set to gain attention in a big way, while opening up a whole new world of taste.

You will be offered fruiting trees and shrubs as either bare-root or containerised specimens. The former are sold only when they are dormant – from about the end of October until a few weeks before they burst into growth. These are often cheaper to buy but you will need to make sure the ground is properly prepared before their arrival, so they aren’t hanging around after delivery.

Container-grown plants can be set into position at any time of the year, though you’ll need to guarantee that new introductions won’t dry out in hot weather. Many of the more unusual fruiting trees and shrubs will be sold this way, some as decorative border favourites.

In both cases, the soil should never be frozen or waterlogged at planting time. Careful preparation is essential and is simply a case of getting as much wellrotted organic matter, such as gardenmade compost or manure, into the soil as possible. Dig over the area where you want to situate your new specimens and then fork this organic matter in.

It is always safer to plant in autumn when trees and shrubs have slowed down or even stopped growing. At this time of year they will have a number of months to send out new roots before developing fresh leaves. The soil will be warm from the summer months, so plants should quickly settle down.

To plant a tree or shrub, dig out a hole that’s slightly deeper and wider than its rootball. If a container-grown plant is particularly pot-bound then tease some of these roots out so they can promptly find their way into the nutrient-rich growing area. Fill in the bottom of the planting hole so that the original soil level of the plant matches the ground level of its new home. Now fill back the earth around the edge of the rootball, pressing down firmly so that there are no pockets of air left. Thoroughly water the plant and, if necessary, attach the trunk with rubber tree ties to a supporting stake.

Any new plant will require some attention until it has found its feet. If you have planted in autumn watch out for harsh frosts, which can lift crops proud of ground level – simply push them back into place. For at least one year after planting you will also need to water in dry weather and remove all weeds.

As plants grow they can mainly be left to their own devices. However, better results will be had if the soil in which your fruiting tree or shrub is growing stays well fed. In most instances this is simply a matter of top-dressing in spring with some general-purpose organic fertilizer before topping up with a layer of organic mulch. Take care when mulching that it does not touch the central stem as this can cause rotting.

Plants grown in containers will need extra care as they depend almost entirely on you for their supply of water and food. Such trees and shrubs are likely to need more regular watering and should be given an occasional liquid feed during the summer. As roots fill the available space, pot plants on to the next size up and once the final container size is reached, remove the top few inches of compost each spring and replace with fresh.

Most fruiting plants will yield a big enough haul for both your needs and those of visiting birds, but if you find feathered visitors are ravaging your chances of a decent crop then net plants in good time.

Make sure the net reaches down to the soil and is pegged into position so that ground-feeding birds don’t wander in and become trapped. Knowing when fruits are ready to harvest is down to observing colour. In most cases this will be obvious – berries will take on a richer, deeper hue to attract the birds to come and feed. This is also your cue to start picking! Check over plants regularly to make sure that you are getting every last berry, currant or fruit. Most may be eaten raw but those that have a sharper taste will make delicious jams and pie fillings.

Or, try combining flavours for an unusual but totally tasty fruit salad. Some fruits, such as those of the buffaloberry, sweeten after the first frost.

Month-by-Month

  • January

    Continue planting bare-root and container-grown varieties as the weather allows. Carefully firm back any plants that become loose in the winter frosts.

  • February

    Continue planting bare-root and container-grown varieties as the weather allows. Carefully firm back any plants that become loose in the winter frosts.

  • March

    This is the last month to get your bare-root crops into place and a good time of year for planting container-grown trees and shrubs before they set into active growth.

  • April

    Apply a top-dressing of general-purpose organic fertilizer to established plants and top up with a generous layer of organic mulch, such as well-rotted compost.

  • May

    Continue planting container-raised stock and begin watering newly planted trees and shrubs in dry weather.

  • June

    Water recently-planted trees and shrubs during hot and dry weather. Check tree ties and loosen them as trunks swell. Keep the soil weed-free by removing any unwanted plants that appear by hoe or hand throughout the summer.

  • July

    Water recently-planted trees and shrubs during hot and dry weather. Check tree ties and loosen them as trunks swell. Keep the soil weed-free by removing any unwanted plants that appear by hoe or hand throughout the summer.

  • August

  • September

    Cooler weather kicks off the planting season. While bare-root types will not yet be available, this is a good time to set container-raised trees and shrubs into place. Many plants will now be cropping.

  • October

    Autumn is the best time to get bare-root plants into the ground. Prepare the soil by digging it over and incorporating plenty of organic matter. Stake trees if needed to prevent them rocking in the wind.

  • November

    Autumn is the best time to get bare-root plants into the ground. Prepare the soil by digging it over and incorporating plenty of organic matter. Stake trees if needed to prevent them rocking in the wind.

  • December

    Continue planting bare-root and container-grown varieties as the weather allows. Carefully firm back any plants that become loose in the winter frosts.

Next
Safety First

Safety First

While it’s always exciting to try something new and unusual, safety is paramount. Make sure that the plant you plan to grow bears fruits that are indeed edible. Many trees and shrubs have similar Latin names with subtly different endings. Be diligent and do your research before buying and, if in doubt, always ask the nurseryman for advice.

Many unusual fruits are sold specifically for enthusiastic gardeners and these will be labelled as such. The most obscure plants take a little seeking out. Go by the Latin name of the plant for complete peace of mind and double-check that what you are buying is what you think it is. There are numerous books on the subject of wild foods, which are useful guides. The Plants For A Future website (pfaf.org) is perhaps the most comprehensive introduction to what’s edible. It has a search facility so you can check which fruits are edible. Each entry includes details on its origin, uses and necessary growing conditions. The website content is also available as a book by Ken Fern, Plants for a Future: Edible and Useful Plants for a Healthier World (£16.95, Permanent Publications, 01730 823 311, permanent-publications.co.uk).

Related Forum Topics

Unusual Fruits: Varieties To Try

  • Quince Meeches Prolific

    The pear-shaped fruits of this shrub are bright golden in colour and can reach a whopping 0.5kg in weight. The quinces are ready to pick in October, when they will fill the garden with their gorgeous fragrance at a time when most other plants are dying down for the season. Use the fruits to make a delicious marmalade or, for something with a kick to it, wine.

  • Medlar Royal

    Trees with large, glossy leaves make a feature in their own right. This variety also bears curious-looking fruits that can be eaten straight from the tree. Most medlars have to be ‘bletted’ or stored to develop their truffle taste, but ‘Royal’ is good enough to eat fresh. It also bears stunning, large, perfect-white flowers throughout spring.

  • Mulberry King James

    The mulberry tree has soft, lush foliage, while the purple fruits are sweet and juicy. This variety is taken from an old tree grown in London’s Chelsea Physic Garden under order from King James I. It can survive for centuries – if you have the space! A mulberry tree would make a beautiful and long-lasting specimen to be proud of in any permanent plot or garden.

  • Lingonberry IDA

    Red berries appear in August on this incredibly disease- and drought-resistant plant. Perfect for keeping in containers, it grows to just 20cm high and can even be clipped to shape like a box shrub. The small red fruits follow white flowers in August and have a pleasantly acidic flavour. Use them in place of cranberries to make a delicious game jelly.

  • Pawpaw (Asimina Triloba)

    Also known as the Red Indian banana, pawpaws are hardy enough to grow in Britain and even prefer a site that receives some dappled shade. The lobed leaves of this Central American native are large, at up to 75cm across, giving it a decidedly tropical appearance. The fruits themselves taste like a cross between a banana and a mango, completing the tropical illusion!

  • Sea Buckthorn (Hippohae Rhamnoides)

    Our very hardy, native sea buckthorn grows up to 3m tall and yields its bright yellow-orange berries in autumn. The fruit is sour and packed with highly concentrated vitamin C, making it an extremely nutritious addition to the fruiting fold. Its silvery leaves are incredibly tough, giving it the ability to withstand salty winds in its coastal habitat. Mix it with other juices or use it to make jams, sauces or wine.

  • Saskatoon Berry (Amelanchier Alnifolia)

    Native to the western United States and Canada, this deciduous shrub bears delicious purple fruits that are sweet to taste and reminiscent of blueberries. It deserves to be more widely grown, as it is very hardy and will establish itself in any reasonably moist but well-drained soil. The shrubs flower in May, producing fragrant white blooms with stunning decorative appeal.

  • Aronia Berry (Aronia Melanocarpa)

    Recently touted as the latest powerful ‘superfood’, the aronia or chokeberry produces berries that are incredibly rich in antioxidants – and in profusion. The polyphenol content of the fruits have been linked to a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. Like the Saskatoon berry, the aronia berry flowers in spring, this time producing bottle-brush like blooms.

  • Silver Buffaloberry (Sherperdia Argentea)

    This slightly sharp-tasting berry from North America is more often eaten by bears than humans! The dark red fruits appear in autumn and make a delicious jam or jelly. The tough shrubs tolerate drought conditions, making them perfect for sandy soils where other shrubs may struggle. They are also a good choice for shelterbelts thanks to their vigorous habit.

  • Honeyberry (Lonicera Caerulea)

    A tough cookie originating from Siberia. The drought-tolerant plants produce pretty white flowers followed by vitamin-packed blue fruits as early as May. The berries taste much like blueberries, except they are larger and have a sweet, honey-like aftertaste. Plants last up to 75 years and can survive temperatures down to -40°C – making this the hardiest on our list!

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Show Stoppers

Many unusual fruits are only such because we treat them as ornamental plants, not realising that they’re are jolly tasty, too! More than any other group, these crops can offer enormous decorative value, combining interesting plant and leaf shape, uplifting flowers and, of course, their coloured, edible fruits.

For a floriferous display try the brilliant-white blossoms of the Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia) or the beautifully scented yellow flowers of the Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.). Sea buckthorn boasts glorious sprays of orange berries, while the flowers of the aronia are borne in stunning, bottlebrush-like clusters. Many of these fruiting trees and shrubs can also contribute rich foliage texture, such as the large, glossy acanthus-like foliage of the pawpaw. Look out also for brilliant autumn colour from the likes of Saskatoon berries and aronia.

Unusual Fruits

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