In the United States, some native fruits didn’t make the cut, and you can’t find them on grocery shelves, although these are just as good, or even better than the regular items you can buy in the fruit section. The native fruits presented in this article should be found on every homestead because they do not require special care, they can provide abundant produce, and they are part of our legacy, one that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Our native fruits may not be native after all
Have you ever stopped to think that almost all of the fruit we eat was domesticated overseas?
Apples, the most American of fruits, are originally from Kazakhstan. Oranges came to us from China. Bananas, originally the pride of Papua New Guinea, migrated slowly to our grocery store shelves over millennia via the Mid East, Africa, and the Caribbean. Native Americans domesticated corn, beans, squash, and a handful of other crops, none of which are fruit.
Did they and the European settlers who came later find no native fruits in this vast continent that were worthy of horticultural improvement?
Of course, there were, and are, plenty of such domestic fruiting plants. North American blueberries have been fully exploited for agricultural purposes and exported to all corners of the globe. But they’re the one exception.
The rest—for reasons horticultural, political, sociological, and economic—have never made it into the food system on a grand scale. Any fruit, even a very tasty one, must follow a long marathon from its wild form in the hills and hollows through the refinements in appearance, shippability, and marketability that will result in its profitability at the supermarket.
This article is dedicated to some of our native species that tried but never made it. The following three fruits have all had their followers and fans, from George Washington to members of the California Rare Fruit Growers.
Some still have university-breeding programs dedicated to making them commercially viable. All can occasionally be found on roadside stands along America’s back roads or in the backyard orchards of old-time gardeners—but not in supermarkets. They are exquisitely edible and, arguably, more American than apple pie.
Native Fruits #1 – Pawpaws
Seasoned world travelers are often familiar with fruits like cherimoya, soursop, and custard apple, perhaps having encountered them at an exotic market in Bali or the Yucatan. Little may they know that a closely related cousin in the Annonaceae family has been hiding out in backyards here in North America.
A small, pyramidal tree found in bottomland forests from eastern Texas to southern Ontario, over to New England and down to northern Florida, the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is North America’s largest native edible fruit, weighing in at up to one pound apiece. Pawpaws are also referred to as the ‘Indiana banana’ because of the creamy texture of the ripe fruit.
Depending on whom you ask, the flavor of pawpaw is a combination of banana, mango, pineapple, cantaloupe, or blackberries. The truth is that pawpaw flavor varies tremendously from plant to plant, from astringent and inedible on some to near divinity on others—a genetic fact that has complicated commercialization efforts.
Also, a problem for consumer receptivity are the black splotches that appear on the skin when the fruit is ripe, which happens shortly after harvest.
These reflect perfect ripeness, not rottenness, but try to persuade your average supermarket shopper of that!
If that wasn’t enough to keep pawpaws confined to the backyards of experimental orchardists, there is also the issue of how slowly they grow. It can take ten years to get fruit, for which and pollination is typically required. Plus, you have to simulate the conditions of an understory tree to keep it happy, providing shade when young and progressively more sun as it matures.
Members of Hernando de Soto’s 16th-century expedition into the continent’s interior observed Native Americans cultivating the fruit and apparently confused it with the papaya, which is called pawpaw by speakers of British English.
It is reputed to have been George Washington’s favorite fruit, and Thomas Jefferson, our most horticulturally inclined president, grew it in his orchard at Monticello. Many have tried to commercialize it, and there is an active breeding program at Kentucky State University, which has produced many improved cultivars.
But outside of foraging your own or attending an event like the annual Pawpaw Festival in Albany, Ohio (it recently became the official fruit of the Buckeye State), there is little hope of trying a pawpaw other than planting one, pampering it and . . . waiting.
Native Fruits #2 – American Persimmon
Asian persimmons (Diospyros kaki) are an upscale supermarket item that is blessed with a perfect acorn shape and smooth, unblemished skin that shines neon orange from the shelf. Its purple-gray American cousin (D. virginiana), however, looks absolutely rotten when ripe.
The fruit of the American type is smaller, but the trees are much bigger—making it a hard sell for a commercial orchardist.
American persimmons are similar but more richly flavored than the supermarket varieties with which we’re familiar. Besides their silky texture and caramel-cinnamon flavor, they are famous for their astringency—it’s like chewing on chalk—which doesn’t disappear until they are completely rotten/ripe.
There’s often just a 48-hour window between the knock-your-socks-off astringency phase and the unpalatable gray mush phase, though the unripe fruit does possess the same attractive orange color of its Asian counterpart.
Likewise, many varieties of Asian persimmon share the astringency before ripeness trait, but consumers seem to have forgiven this flaw, perhaps because they retain drop-dead good looks until the fruit is ready to melt in your mouth.
Native people in the vicinity of the colony at Jamestown, Va., introduced Captain John Smith to the persimmon; he recorded it as a type of wild plum. American persimmons helped sustain the early pioneers through those first lean winters, as it often hangs on the tree like ornaments until Christmas, and it can be easily preserved for several additional months.
It was not until 1880 that the first cultivar, ‘Early Golden’ was selected, though further breeding was minimal until the 1970s when Elwyn Meader introduced the first self-fertile American persimmon, named ‘Meader’ in his honor.
It remains the most popular backyard variety to date. The towering deciduous trees are common in the same eastern forests as the pawpaw, though they also occur in upland and coastal habitats where the pawpaw seldom grows.
Unlike the pawpaw, American persimmons are easy to grow at home in most parts of the country, though you have to be gentle with the large, brittle taproot at planting time to ensure success. You can wait to enjoy the fruit until it falls to the ground ripe in late fall, though this approach often results in lots of splattered persimmons.
Alternatively, try freezing, drying, or baking with pre-ripe fruit, all of which neutralize the astringency and bring out the spiced-pudding flavor for which they are loved.
Aside from ‘Meader,’ ‘Killen’ and ‘Wabash’ are top cultivars.
Native Fruits #3 – Muscadine Grapes
Muscadines (Vitis rotundifolia) are native North American grapes with a thick skin and “musky” flavor that grow wild in the deep, sultry South. (Muscadine refers primarily to the dark-colored fruit, though it is a catchall term for all varieties of V. rotundifolia; meanwhile, scuppernong is used as a collective name for just the bronze and green varieties.)
They are the southern version of V. labrusca, the Concord-type, slipskin grapes of New England and the Great Lakes. Distinct from the European species (V. vinifera), North American grapes bear a leathery, sour skin from which their sweet innards must be popped.
Muscadines also grow singly, rather than in large, easily harvested clusters. This combination of traits has dampened market potential.
Compared to pawpaws and American persimmons, however, muscadines have enjoyed a bit of commercial success. In the early 19th century, before the days of fine California wines and widely available imports, muscadine wine was almost the only wine that Americans consumed.
Today there are several active breeding programs, and about 3,000 acres of commercial cultivation spread throughout the southeastern states. They occasionally make an appearance in grocery stores with the specialty fruits, but they mostly exist as a pick-your-own commodity.
Backcountry growers commonly offer a half-dozen value-added muscadine products from their roadside stands, such as grape hull pie (made with just the skins, presumably after the grapes have been consumed).
Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano came across muscadine vines on the banks of the Cape Fear River as he explored what is now North Carolina in the early 16th century, remarking on their abundance.
In nearby Tyrrell County 150 years later, Isaac Alexander introduced the first cultivar, which he originally gave the uninventive name ‘Big White Grape.’ It was quickly renamed for the Scuppernong River that flowed through the region, a moniker with such charisma that all light-colored muscadines since have been lumped under it.
Muscadines grow like a weed in the humid South but are tough to grow elsewhere. If you live in the right climate, try ‘Ison’, ‘Tara’ and ‘Fry.’ Otherwise, in lieu of growing your own, you might consider making a field trip in order to sample their foxy flavor.
The Mother Vine, a 400-year old scuppernong grapevine on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island, represents one of the great horticultural pilgrimages of the world. The giant sequoia of grapes, this sprawling, half-acre specimen was allegedly planted by Native Americans, and it is still harvested each year for a renowned muscadine wine.
Native Fruits #4 – Mulberry
June is heavy with the anticipation of plums, peaches, cherries, apricots, and all of the other fruits that are slowly enlarging on orchard branches. Yet the very first tree fruit to become fully plump and juicy is one of the least commonly grown— the humble but exquisite mulberry (Morus spp.).
Nearly everywhere, these are the first of the tree fruits to ripen; in mild climates, some varieties do so in May.
Mulberries fall apart in a gooey mess within 24 hours of picking, making them an impossible fruit to commercialize, and it seems their absence on grocery-store shelves has translated to an absence in home orchards as well.
Their semi-obscurity is surprising because upon trying a fully ripe mulberry from a good cultivar, most people find them on par with—or even tastier than—blackberries, the fruit they most resemble.
Mulberries may look like blackberries, but they fall in the Moraceae family, along with figs and jackfruit. The fruits of strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, apples, and the many other commonly grown edibles of the Rosaceae develop from a single, conspicuously large flower.
Mulberries, however, follow an altogether different method of fruit development. Not a true berry at all, they are known as a multiple, or collective fruit. Numerous tiny flowers cluster tightly together in an inflorescence; each tiny flower becomes a fruit. Therefore what we call one mulberry is actually a tight clump of many small fruits.
This is why mulberries have a denser, chewier texture than blackberries or raspberries. It also makes them one of the most protein-rich fruits. While the odd flower structure of mulberries lacks the aesthetic punch of most other blossoms, the trees make up for it with a lush canopy of large, glossy green leaves, which have an almost tropical effect in the landscape.
As for placement, mulberries offer diverse options. Most cultivars grow quickly into round-canopied trees 20 to 30 feet tall—no pruning required. However, they take quite well to shaping, and they can easily be espaliered against a wall or even maintained as shrubs, pollarded, or clipped into a hedge. Full sun or part shade works fine. Just make sure you don’t plant a mulberry where its branches will overhang hardscape areas.
The fruit makes a blood-red stain nearly impossible to remove. Compared to any commonly grown fruit or berry, mulberries are generally more robust and easier to tend. The trees aren’t picky about soil type, though a fertile loam never hurts. They need summer irrigation in arid regions only.
Mulberry pests and diseases remain virtually unheard of, and you can save your netting because a mature tree typically produces enough for a large family with plenty left over for birds.
Mulberries are self-fertile, so you need to plant only one for fruit. Figuring out which one to plant can be a bit confusing, however. There are three main species of mulberries with relevance to North American gardeners: red mulberries (Morus rubra), which are native to the eastern half of the continent, and white (M.alba) and black (M. nigra) mulberries, both of which originate in Asia.
Confusingly, these common names don’t necessarily correspond to the fruit color. White-fruited cultivars exist, but they don’t always come from white mulberry trees, which are named for the color of their buds. (This is the species used to feed silkworms in Asia.)
The weedy mulberry trees that many eastern gardeners fight, which only occasionally produces good quality fruit, are usually hybrids between white mulberries and the native red mulberry, or their distant cousin, the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera).
For fruit production, it’s important to stick with named cultivars. These, too, have resulted from hybridization, but they are not weedy. Indeed, seedlings won’t sprout up around named cultivars; if you wish to propagate them, this can be easily achieved through hardwood cuttings.
Most cultivars need not be grafted onto other rootstocks to thrive. Here is one native favorite: ‘Illinois Everbearing,’ which produces 1½- inch fruits that set the standard for mulberry flavor, and it is hardy to -30°F.
The native fruits you can find in the backroads of America are part of our lost legacy and we should not neglect it. While these fruits may not be profitable for large-scale agriculture, they are perfect for your homestead. Every John Doe can give them a try and they won’t regret it in the long-run.