Uncommon Fruits with Commercial Potential
by Lee Reich, PhD of New Paltz, NY
When small farmers and backyard gardeners consider planting fruits, their thoughts usually turn first to apples. After that, peaches, plums, and other familiar fruits perhaps come to mind. I’d like to make a case for considering some uncommon fruits in addition to, or instead of, these more common ones.
The fruits I’m thinking of — pawpaws, gooseberries, shipovas, and some others — have all been enjoyed in some parts of the world at some time. They’re not generally well-known because much of our agriculture and eating habits still reflect our mostly European, especially British, heritage. Even the word Latin word “pome” can mean either “apple” or “fruit.” In Britain, apple is the king of fruits.
Why plant pawpaws, gooseberries, shipovas, and other uncommon fruits on the small farm? These fruits are easy to grow. They’re generally pest-free so don’t need spraying, and even their pruning needs are minimal. Because sprays are not needed (not the case for apples and many other common fruits over much of the country), they can be grown organically and sold as such to command premium prices. These uncommon fruits also have unique, delectable flavors. Consumers are now, more than ever, interested in “new” flavors, making these fruits very appealing and, again, allowing them to command top dollar in markets. Besides providing fruit to enjoy and sell, most of the trees, shrubs, and vines that I’m going to describe also make nice, ornamental farmstead plants. All of them are cold-hardy over much of the country.
Fruits Only for Colder Regions
Cultivation of some uncommon fruits is limited more by heat than by cold. That would be the case for gooseberries (hardy to Zone 3) and European black currants (hardy at least to Zone 4); both have excellent commercial potential but do not thrive where summers are long and hot. That said, both plants can be grown throughout the northern half of the country, and their southern limit can be extended some by planting them in part shade, which these plants are unique among fruit plants in tolerating. Both fruits are very popular in northern Europe, and people who have lived there swoon over these fruits. The plants are bushes growing about four feet high and wide, although there are stronger and weaker growing varieties of each fruit.
Most Americans consider all gooseberries to be small, green, tart fruits. Not so! I’ve grown about fifty varieties of so-called “dessert” gooseberries; varieties whose fruits rival in flavor the best that grapes, plums, and apricots have to offer. Some are the size of a quarter, and there are even larger varieties. And yes, some are green, but others are, yellow, red, black, or almost white.
The reason most people don’t know gooseberries is because the plants belong to the Ribes genus, and this genus has some members that are alternate hosts for white pine blister rust disease. Because this disease is so devastating to white pines, an important timber crop, growing Ribes was banned by federal law in the 1920s. Cultivated gooseberries, though, are not good hosts for the disease, which is one reason why the federal ban was lifted in 1966 and put under state mandate. Many states have lifted the ban, but people forgot what good gooseberries were like. The few varieties offered by most nurseries have, in fact, been small and tart. Pixwell, one of the worst but most widely sold, is red and tough as well as small and tart. That’s changing, in large part thanks to the efforts of the International Ribes Association, which was founded in 1989; not only are more people learning about gooseberries but nurseries are beginning to offer better varieties.
One key to growing good gooseberries, gooseberries that will sell, is to select varieties with care. I recommend choosing on the basis of flavor and resistance to powdery mildew, a disease that can decimate the crop on a susceptible variety. Among my favorites, taking these two factors into consideration, are Poorman, Black Satin, Red Jacket, Glendale, Captivator, and Hinnonmaki Yellow.
European black currant is another member of the Ribes genus, one that is, in fact, very susceptible to that rust disease that also threatens white pines. In the last few decades, though, a number of varieties have been developed that are resistant or even immune to the disease. The best of these, in my experience, include Consort, Kirovchanka, and Minaj Smyrev. I eat black currants right off the bushes, but many people find the fresh too strong. Even so, most everyone enjoys black currants in juices, jams, liqueurs, chocolates, and other products, both for their rich, processed flavor and for their extremely high levels of vitamin C.
Currants and gooseberries require much the same growing conditions. A permanent mulch provides the cool, moist soils that they enjoy, and annual pruning to remove oldest wood and a portion of the youngest wood keeps a plant fruitful. Black currants bear best on one-year-old wood, gooseberries on two- and three-year-old wood.
Lingonberry, unrelated to gooseberries and currants, is another fruit that thrives only in cooler sections of our country (Zone 4-7). It’s a northern European favorite; merely uttering the word “lingonberry” to someone Scandinavian and watch for the smile on their lips and dreamy look in their eyes. The fruit is often compared to our Thanksgiving cranberry, but I think lingonberry outshines its American cousin in every way except for having smaller fruits. The plant is prettier, a spreading groundcover with small leaves that stay lustrous green all winter. Yes, both fruits are used in the kitchen in similar ways, and neither fruit is sweet. But a lingonberry fruit couples just enough sweetness with a rich, unique aroma so that the fruits are delicious plucked off the plants right into your mouth. It would take someone with robust taste buds to do this with cranberry.
Getting the soil right is the key to growing lingonberries. This plant needs a soil that is very acidic, rich in humus, well-drained, and low in fertility — just like blueberry, mountain laurel, and rhododendron, all relatives. Before planting, check the soil pH and add granular sulfur to bring the pH into the desired range of 4 to 5. (It may not be possible to grow lingonberries commercially where soils have a naturally very high pH). Mix a bucketful of acidic peat moss into each planting hole and then, after planting, mulch the ground with a couple of inches of wood shavings or leaves. For commercial harvest, plant lingonberries eighteen inches apart in rows four to five feet apart, then let them spread to form solid ribbons of plants — like strawberries — that you keep thirty inches wide. Drip irrigation or regular watering is a must, especially the first season at least.
For best fruit production, plant at least two varieties. The plants are somewhat self-fertile, but yield and berry size increase with cross-pollination. Some work has been done at the University of Wisconsin to promote lingonberry as a commercial crop and a couple of varieties, Regal and Splendor, have been selected so that now, counting those developed in Europe, more than a dozen varieties exist.
Beyond weeding, annual mulching, occasional pruning, perhaps additions of fertilizer and sulfur, lingonberry is a carefree plant. The plants bear at an early age with reasonable production beginning within three to six years. Expect yields of ten to twenty-five or more pounds per hundred square feet (two to five tons per acre). A berry comb like that used for harvesting lowbush blueberries speeds picking, although the resultant harvest then needs cleaning to rid it of leaves and unripe fruits.
Uncommon Fruits for Almost Everywhere
I’d like to move on to three more uncommon fruits — shipova, hardy kiwifruit, and pawpaw — all of which are suited to backyard, farmstead, or small-scale, commercial production just about everywhere in the U.S.
Shipova is a rare fruit indeed, an intergeneric hybrid between European pear and whitebeam, the latter an ornamental tree also often enjoyed in Europe for its fruits. For a shipova fruit, picture a small pear about two inches across and rounded so as to retain just a hint of pear-ness. The skin is golden yellow with a red blush on the side kissed by the sun. A close flavor comparison would be with pear, which is also one of the “pear-rents” (pardon the pun) of this unusual hybrid. The flesh — more meaty than pear — melts as you chew to fill the mouth with semisolid, sweet and fragrant ambrosia.
Shipova grows to become a large, spreading tree whose branches are adorned with large clusters of white blossoms in spring. Cross-pollination is unnecessary and little or no pruning is needed. If this plant has faults, they are the length of time needed before bearing begins, typically about eight years, and the trees’ large size. Dwarfing rootstocks could solve both problems. At any rate, I think the fruits, which ripen in late summer, are well worth the wait.
Hardy kiwifruit, as its name implies, is closely related to its commercial cousin that became familiar in markets here in the 1970s. Both plants grow as vigorous vines but while market kiwifruit vines are cold-hardy only to Zone 7, hardy kiwifruit vines are hardy to Zone 4. A vine is either male or female so you need to plant a separate, non-fruiting male vine to pollinate fruiting females — up to eight females per male. The plants need soils with perfect drainage, so plant on wide mounds if drainage conditions are less than perfect.
The best thing about hardy kiwifruit, and the way they differ most from market kiwifruits, is in the fruit itself. Hardy kiwifruits have similar flavor and emerald green flesh as their market cousins, but the hardy kiwifruits are grape-size and with smooth skins. You just pop them into your mouth, skin and all, just like grapes. Hardy kiwifruit also are sweeter and more aromatic, with hints of additional flavors such as banana, passionfruit, or pineapple. The fruits ripen in fall, and once they reach a certain stage of maturity, can be stored under refrigeration from which they can be removed and ripened as needed. A number of fruiting varieties are currently available. The Pacific Agriculture Research Centre (PARC) in Agassiz, British Columbia has been investigating the commercialization of hardy kiwifruit for a number of years and they found that the varieties Geneva, Ananasnaya, and Dumbarton Oaks all yield well and have excellent flavor.
For best fruit production, hardy kiwifruits demand more management than the other uncommon fruits. Being vigorous vines, they need some sort of structure on which to grow. I train mine on a trellis of six-foot-high T-bar supports spaced between fifteen and twenty feet apart. The cross-arms, five feet wide, are linked together with five parallel wires, one down the middle of the cross arms and the two others spaced out on either side. I prefer nylon monofilament to metal wire because it is always under tension so never sags as temperatures change through the year.
Once a permanent trunk and two arms are trained up to and then along the middle wires, temporary fruiting shoots are developed growing off perpendicularly to the arms. The vines need pruning once in winter and a few times in summer to provide for replacement of fruiting shoots as older ones age and to keep the vines from growing too large or so tangled that they shade themselves. A single vine can yield more than two-hundred pounds of fruit.
Pawpaw, an American native, is the grand finale for these uncommon fruits with commercial potential. Here is a fruit that has many tropical connections despite growing where winters plummet below minus twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. The tree looks very tropical, with lush, large leaves resembling those of avocado. It’s also the northernmost member of the mostly tropical custard apple family, and the fruit tastes similar to custard apple itself. The trees usually grow fifteen to twenty feet high and should be given that same spacing, or a bit less, under commercial conditions.
There was a surge in interest in pawpaws about a hundred years ago when the American Genetic Association sponsored a contest for the best fruits. In the years that followed, superior clones were selected and given variety names. Interest in pawpaws waned by the middle of the twentieth century but has surged again in the last couple of decades, spurred on by the formation of the Pawpaw Foundation and research at a few universities into pawpaw as an alternative fruit crop. Over two dozen varieties have, thus far, been named and described (my current favorite is Zimmerman).
Success with pawpaw comes from choosing a good site and good planting stock. Pawpaws are not finicky about where they grow, requiring the same reasonably fertile, well-drained soils in full sun as most other fruits. Most important, though, is to plant a sturdy tree of a named variety, that is, a grafted tree (usually available only from specialty nurseries). Planting a named variety assures you that the tree will bear the highest quality fruits and that bearing will begin at a reasonably young age, usually by the third year. Two different varieties, both of which will bear fruit, are needed for cross-pollination and fruit.
Once a plant is in the ground and growing well, little further care is needed beyond harvesting the fruits — twenty-five to fifty pounds per plant. The fruits have been called Hoosier bananas, Michigan bananas, or “whatever-state-the-pawpaw-happens-to-grow-in” banana and are borne in clusters (like bananas), with each fruit about the size and shape of a mango. Within the greenish yellow skin, which becomes speckled and streaked with brown at ripeness (again, like bananas), is a creamy white, custardy flesh. The flavor is much like that of bananas with additional hints of vanilla custard, pineapple, and mango. My favorite description comes from the Hoosier poet, James Whitcomb Riley (“Up and Down Old Brandywine”):
And sich pop-paws!—Lumps o’ raw
Gold and green,—jes’ oozy th’ough
With ripe yaller—like you’ve saw
Custard-pie with no crust to …
Like the other uncommon fruits mentioned, taste alone will sell pawpaw fruit.
Some Nursery Sources for Uncommon Fruit Plants
Burnt Ridge Nursery, 432 Burnt Ridge Road, Onalaska, WA 98570, 360-985-2873; www.burntridgenursery.com
Hartmann’s Plant Company, P.O. Box 100, Lacota, MI 49063-0100, 269-253-4281; www.hartmannsplantcompany.com
Indiana Berry & Plant, 5218 W. 500 South, Huntingburg, IN 47542, 800-295-2226; https://indianaberry.com/
One Green World, 28696 South Cramer Road, Molalla, OR 97038, 877-353-4028; www.onegreenworld.com
Peterson Pawpaws, LLC, P.O. Box 1011, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425; 304-535-3125; www.petersonpawpaws.com
Raintree Nursery, 391 Butts Road, Morton, WA 98356, 360-496-6400; www.RaintreeNursery.com
Saint Lawrence Nurseries, RFD 2, State Route 345, Potsdam, NY 13676, 315-265-6739; www.slngrow.com/
Lee Reich, PhD (www.leereich.com) grows just about all the two-dozen uncommon fruits about which he wrote in Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden (Timber Press, 2004) on his farmette in New Paltz, New York.