There are two types of gardeners I encounter on a regular basis; those who are interested in edibles, and those who are interested in natives.
I’m interested in both. Since many natives are excellently adapted to the climate, if they bear something edible – I want them.
What needs to happen is for Mr. Native to marry Miss Edible… and then we’ll have a wedding of no-care delicious.
So… are you ready? Let’s take a look at a few good native edible fruit and nut trees, starting with a classic.
Pecans are a staple of the south, though they’re not exclusively a southern tree.
Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both planted pecan trees on their properties, since they were rightly enthusiastic about this uniquely American nut.
They’ll adapt across a wide range of growing zones. According to some sources, they’ll even manage up into Canada.
As a nut, the pecan is buttery and delicious. Trees aren’t always easy to come by, but nuts can be germinated pretty easily, though it allegedly takes a decade or more for the resulting seedlings to bear. You’ll also want to plant two trees to ensure pollination.
Once established, pecans need only moderate care. Watch out for tent caterpillars in the spring.
Though they take a while, pecans are worth planting. The trees are attractive hardwoods that provide shade in summer and a good yield of high-value nuts in the fall.
Across much of the nation you’ll find a variety of native fruit trees in the Crataegus (Hawthorn) family. The small, apple-like fruits are named “mayhaws.”
Mayhaws are edible raw or cooked, but are most commonly used to make delicious jellies.
Check with you local wild forager or Native Plant Society to see which mayhaws you can grow in your area. The trees are tough, though most varieties tend to like moist conditions.
If you miss picking the fruit, be assured that your local bird population will happily stand in the gap on your behalf.
Beyond being a useful edible, Hawthorn trees also have medicinal value in the treatment of heart disease.
It’s no secret that I love mulberry trees.
Unfortunately, many of the mulberries that are grown here are not the native “red” mulberry that first greeted the colonists. Our native variety (Morus rubra) is threatened by cross-breeding with introduced species from China and Europe. All the more reason to plant one.
The tree grows quickly and the fruit is delicious and abundant, plus they’ll grow from New York to Miami, so chances are you can grow one in your yard.
Chestnuts used to be the reigning nut-producing powerhouse of the great North American forests… until the Chestnut Blight wiped out almost every single specimen across the nation in the early 1900s.
Fortunately, some headway has been made in blight-resistant varieties. One notable cultivar is the Dunstan chestnut. I’ve planted four of them in my yard so far. The nuts are large and sweet enough to eat raw, plus the trees are attractive. Chinese varieties are smaller with variable nut quality, so why not plant natives?
If you’re interested in learning more about chestnuts and the effort to reintroduce them to the forests of Appalachia, start here.
Pawpaws are a truly weird fruit tree. They look like a tropical plant and have mostly tropical relations, but they grow from North Florida all the way into Ontario, shrugging off the cold and producing the largest fruits native to North America.
They’re also pollinated by flies, hate being transplanted (it’s often impossible without serious skill), and will not grow from cuttings.
That said, pawpaws will grow from seeds without too much trouble and have delicious fruit. They’re also easy to maintain once established. If you can’t find them in a local nursery, you can usually find seeds on ebay already stratified and ready to plant. Just be aware that they take a while to sprout, so don’t give up too quickly. Mine took about 60 days.
Incidentally, in Florida we have some really interesting shrubby species of pawpaw that are worth checking out. Some bear quite good fruit, and others are just food for wildlife.
Persimmons are a great North American native fruit that doesn’t get its due. This is mostly because of the fruit’s astringency before it’s fully ripe. Eat one too early and the experience is horrible. Eat one when it’s ready and the flavor is exceptionally good. They’re very good for jams, for dehydrating, and for making wine and vinegar.
Beyond the fruit’s astringency when underripe, American persimmons are dioecious, meaning that you have to have a male tree for your female trees to set fruit. The males don’t bear at all, so they take up space that could be used for productive trees; however, you only need one male to pollinate multiple females. If you plant multiple specimens, you’re likely to get both sexes… and if there are superflous males, the wood is excellent for tool handles and woodworking.
Because the root systems of American persimmons are excellent, improved Japanese varieties like Fuyu are often grafted onto native stock when sold in the United States. Some states have tree giveaway programs where you can get persimmon trees for free, so keep your eyes open and be sure you don’t plant just one.
These trees are just a few of the many North American natives worth planting. Others include black walnuts, blueberries (though they’re not really trees), butternut, sweet acorns, juneberries, highbush cranberry and many, many more.
Talk to your local native plant society folks and seek out jam-makers and retired gardeners… they can often point you in the right direction.
Native edible fruit and nut trees might not be common in garden centers, but they should be more common in our yards, especially as we look ahead towards an uncertain future.