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.
- Typical Vireya
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.
- Agapetes blossoms
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.
A lot of common garden shrubs and trees have fruit that is edible and “OK” if not necessarily luscious. A good example would be Haw berries. Haw berries are the fruits of Hawthorns. The fruit is sweet, a little on the dry side, and mealy.
In China there are species with bigger fruits than are typical of ours. The most typical has a fruit a little over a centimeter in diameter, however, there are some in the subtropics with fruit about the size of an apple. In China, Haw fruit is commonly eaten in any one of several types of candy.
Author and organic gardener Bob Flowerdew suggests mixing haw berries with elderberries and either crab- or cooking apples, to make jelly.
Crab apples make fairly good conserves. Some of the bigger ones are good in most things apples are good in, and my friend Arthur Lee Jacobson, the author and tree expert, speaks highly of crab apple cider. Crab apples to their credit seem to be rather easier to grow than Apples. I see beautiful unblemished fruit here, where apples get scab and other disfiguring diseases because of the humid climate.
Check your “flowering plums” for fruit. Some of them produce “cherry-plums” that taste like typical wild plums. You can eat it fresh thought it might be better seeded, cooked, and slightly sweetened. Would probably make a good addition to Rumtopf (fruit preserved in rum–a specialty of German-speaking countries).
Mountain Ashes, or Rowans (Sorbus) are not native to my part of the world, but the European Mountain Ash has gone abundantly feral here. The trees are typically loaded with fruit come autumn. I’ve long looked at them as possible famine food, but Bob Flowerdew writes that they make “a delicious jelly, almost like marmalade, which goes well with venison, game and fatty or cold meats”. Who would have thought? Now I’m curious to try it.
There are Asian Sorbus with significantly larger fruit, but the fact that only the European Mountain Ash has ever gone feral here make me think they are not as easy to grow.
Japanese quinces produce a hard, sour, dry fruit that can be rendered edible by cooking it. Probably rich in pectin and worth making jelly out of. Japanese quinces are common in cultivation so worthwhile to use the fruit.
Roses are common plants and the fruit is potentially useful. Wild rose hips used to be fairly commonly consumed in Europe–largely for lack of other fruits that had not yet arrived from other parts of the world. Europe was botanically impoverished by the ice ages.
Most highly-bred roses, especially ones with un-naturally many petals, produce few or no hips, and often their hips are unusable anyway. Wild roses, and roses that are domesticated but have single (as in, only 5 petals) often have good hips. Rugosa type roses tend to have especially good hips, being large, colorful, and fairly succulent as rose-hips go. Some roses have sufficiently attractive fruit I would suggest considering hips when selecting them.
A fairly typical use would be rose-hip jelly, but Bob Flowerdew has a recipe for rose-hip tarts in his book. To use them as fruit, you have to trim the ends, cut them in half, and scoop out the contents of the seed cavity, including all the fuzzy stuff. If making jelly, you can strain the seeds out along with all the other solids when you filter the liquid out through a cloth. About a month ago my daughter and her friend tried to make big batch of rose-hip jelly; the result was that the pulp jelled but their jelly didn’t (probably didn’t cook it down enough; you’re supposed to test a drop on a plate).
One use for rose hips that used to be fairly common–through I don’t notice it anymore–was rose-hip “tea”. I think the point is to make good use of the vitamin C that some (alas, not all) rose hips are rich in. It also gives mixed tisanes (“herbal teas”) a tart, fruity flavor.
It seems to me rose-hip concoctions could be improved by saving some of the petals and most importantly, retaining some of their scent, then adding the rose petals to the mix being steeped, so that the final product has the tartness of the hips and a hint of the fragrance of the petals; this would make a final product with a more distinct association with roses. Then you could “enjoy your roses” off-season.
Some people grow Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) as an ornamental–especially the types with colored foliage. The fruit is edible though it’s worth a brief warning: elderberries are probably best not consumed in large quantities raw; they contain cyanogenic (“cyanide-producing”) glycosides. Especially don’t eat red elderberries raw, which could make you quite sick. Cooking evaporates the toxin. I suggest removing the seeds while they are cooking; they’re not only unpleasant to get stuck between your teeth, but they’re also slightly toxic.
I’ll mention Fuchsias only briefly: their fruits are edible, but bland. The one exception that I am aware of is the fruit of Fuchsia boliviana. That said, after thinking about it a while, it occurs to me that while most of them are not particularly tasty, they do provide anthrocyanins that people pay good money for when they come packaged as blueberries or açai berries. So, you might reasonably find a use for them, perhaps mixed with something with a stronger flavor.
Myrtle and their relations are probably worth their own post some time. It’s a huge family, but not all of them have berries and the vast majority are not hardy. Myrtus communis, the “common Myrtle”, is quite rare in my part of the world. More common are a few of its South American counterparts.
I suppose it’s worth a word of advice: ignore signs and tags in the nursery reassuring you that Feijoa is self-fruitful. Make sure you have unrelated seedlings to cross-pollinate. Otherwise, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise after waiting for years for it to bloom. It will take more years to grow another one to pollinate it.
Feijoas are beautiful shrubs or small trees, with showy candy-pink blossoms and rather handsome textured but glossy foliage and bark. They start looking “rugged” even when not particularly old, and remind many people of olive trees. For a tree native to southern Brazil they are surprisingly cold-hardy (I had a gallon-sized tree not even established survive 14F/-10C) not to mention resilient.
The fruit is absolutely delicious, with a sweet-sour taste and a fragrance like sweet peas. Possibly the best of the guavas.
Ugni molinae (formerly Myrtus ugni), “Chilean Guavas”, seems to be self-fertile. The fruit is quite small, roughly the size of a pea if even that big. They taste like typical Guavas, but with strawberry-like overtones. A tad tender when first planted, they get hardier once they start suckering, at which point they come back from suckers if they freeze back.
Often grown as an ornamental in the milder parts of western Europe and the Pacific Northwest, and having escaped cultivation in parts of Europe and California, few people who grow it notice that Luma apiculata can have palatable fruit. The bad news is that apparently fruit quality varies with the genetics of the plant that bears it, and is sometimes dry or bland.
It’s also worth noting that Lumas are very long-lived, at least in habitat, and will eventually get too tall to easily gather the fruit, but only after a very long time as they are slow-growing.
People in warm climates like those of California, Florida, Australia, and Mediterranean Europe should probably check their Eugenia trees for palatable fruit. Several bear edible fruit including Eugenia uniflora, the “Surinam Cherry”.
I’m not sure if Lardizabalaceae is worth mentioning. The fruits (“Zabalfruits”) are generally edible, and often even sweet, but bland and mealy too. I think the only common one is Akebia (“Chocolate Vine”), but sometimes you see Holboelias, Decaisnea (one of the few members of the family that isn’t a climber) and even Stauntonias.
Mulberries probably are worth covering, because while some people won’t eat them, there are plenty of other people who love them. There seem to be three species: Morus alba, M. rubra, and M. nigra: white, red, and black. The names don’t necessarily correspond to the color of the fruit, though. Generally albas are sweet but the most bland, but even that generalization is not always true as there is an alba from Pakistan that is popular for its large and reputedly complex-flavored fruit. Rubras and nigras generally more tart.
I haven’t eaten one since I was a kid and do not remember what they taste like. Kids tend to eat them fresh (and stain their hands in the process), I’ve heard of mulberry wine, and I looked up online to see that other people do make pies out of them:
I don’t know what it is about mulberries that feels nostalgic, perhaps it is because they are not commercially available, but whenever I cook with Mulberries it feels like I am going back to the days of farmhand suppers and lemonade served on the front porch.
“Cornelian Cherry”–Cornus mas–has fruit good enough that they’re grown for fruit in places like Armenia and Iran, and has been considered as a potential crop elsewhere. I’ve eaten them, and they’re not bad. Attractively and vividly colored, pleasantly tart, probably good cooked with a little sugar.
You’ve probably noticed that a lot of the fruits are recommended for jelly. That’s because many of them aren’t good enough to eat fresh out of hand, for one reason or another, but they are tart enough and sufficiently pectin-rich to make good jelly. Its a good guess for uses if you can’t think of others. Some unimproved fruits also make good juice when cooked (if needed to release the juices), filtered, diluted, and slightly sweetened.
Hey, it’s free food. Times are getting hard. Take a second look at what you’ve already got.
Those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. I can think of a few more too obscure to mention, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten plenty.
I suggest NOT sampling fruits you don’t know for certain to be edible. Holly-berries for example are somewhat toxic, hence names like “Ilex vomitorium”. Some solanaceous plants have mildly to fairly toxic fruit, and those of the notorious Atropa belladonna can kill you.
What do you think? Do you know of some common landscaping plants that have fruit worth harvesting? How about some good uses?