Scott Beuerlein is a horticulturist. Contact him at scott.beuerlein@cincinnatizoo.org.

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Sweet Native Fruit Trees That Won’t Leave You Bitter
by Scott Beuerlein       #Fruit   #Natives   #Trees

Pawpaws found in the woods are usually tall and skinny and rarely produce fruit. They spread mostly by forming colonies. But in the garden, the trees display a great form and can be very productive.


With surprising regularity, some poor schlep of a volunteer from a community garden – abuzz with visions of plump, perfect sweet cherries, heirloom apples, and sugar plums dancing in his or her head – will email me with a simple question that they expect will have a simple answer. The question is always some variation on this: “What apples, pears, and peaches would you recommend for a community orchard?” I wish I could see the looks on their faces when they get a big old heaping serving of attitude.

Persimmons can be easily identified by the iconic alligator-hide bark. The wood is light but strong, and was once used as the heads on golf club “woods.”

Growing standard orchard crops isn’t gardening. It’s a way of life. And a hard one at that. Sleepless nights worrying about plum curculio, shelling out big bucks on potions and tinctures, calling in sick to stay home to nurse sick trees. Really, not the stuff of the average community garden volunteer. And it would be irresponsible to not tell them so. Right? That it had to come with a load of world-weary whining from a bitter schmuck who has been mocked and defeated by scabbed apples and dead apricot trees is their just dumb luck.

But, because I’m not a total jerk, I eventually get around to a perfectly reasonable solution – a pair of fruit trees that can be grown with near impunity: pawpaws and persimmons. Once I’ve made my pitch, the volunteer is 100 percent in – and why not? What could be cooler for a community garden than to grow native plants that connect us to our history and natural heritage, produce nutritious food, and do so without inputs? Besides, good, cheap apples and peaches can be bought in any market. Where can you buy a decent pawpaw or a persimmon to eat?

Both pawpaw and persimmon trees can be found in big swaths of eastern North America. They are common, colonizing trees. You’ll usually find pawpaws in moist woods, persimmons too, but persimmons can also occur on drier, higher ground. Both are perfect for yards and gardens, and both are attractive enough to grow even if you have no interest in the fruit.


Pawpaw flowers are dark and smell of carrion, but are not unattractive. Pawpaws are self-infertile, and pollination is achieved mostly by carrion beetles, which don’t travel especially well, so plant two varieties close to each other.
 

Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) are the current darling of the hort world. Literally, there are festivals devoted to their honor, and a fair amount of craft beer is made with them as an ingredient. Despite this, they are not especially easy to procure. Take the effort to track them down, especially named cultivars if you can find them. A little shade is best, but full-sun is fine with just a bit of care. In sun, they form into a wonderful pyramidal form, replete in their large, lush, tropical-looking leaves. They have a good, clear yellow fall color, and are hardy to USDA Zone 5. The fruits ripen in early fall and are sweet and rich, looking and tasting superficially like bananas. They can be fairly productive, but what you don’t use the local wildlife will not allow to go to waste.


Persimmon fruit should not be eaten until fully ripe. They frequently remain on the tree into early winter, and are quite ornamental.
 

You’ll need more space for a persimmon than either pawpaws or serviceberries. They top out at about 60 feet. They are hardy to USDA Zone 4.

Although pawpaws are trending, the persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) are by no means chopped liver. With attractive bark, a nice upright form, good fall color, and abundant umber fruits that hang like ornaments into winter, they deserve more attention than they get. They are hardy to USDA Zone 4, and the fruits are delicious – there’s nothing else quite like them. About the size and color of an apricot, persimmon fruits are rich and pulpy and a fabulous treat in the late fall. Late fall, by the way, is an important point. Bite into one before it is fully ready, and they are the most astringent substance on the planet. One time at work, we gave an unripe persimmon to an unsuspecting intern, and he quickly puckered into a bleached pile of bones. It was unfortunate, and we all kind of felt bad.

Seedling persimmons trees are dioecious, meaning you’ll need a male lurking around if you want any fruit, but most of the named cultivars are self-pollinating. Pawpaws are self-infertile, so you’ll need more than one seedling or multiple named selections for fruit. I planted about a dozen pawpaws in a 15-by-15-foot area, some in the same hole, and they have looked and performed great, producing far more than we can eat.

Never dig wild persimmons or pawpaws. As colonizing plants, anything you find small enough to dig will still be dependent on mom’s roots, and will not survive. Growing plants from seeds of either species is easy and rewarding, but for consistent quality of fruit seek out named selections. You might have to go online or through mail-order.

A third native fruit tree option also deserves a mention. Serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.) are another native plant that can be depended upon for attractiveness in gardens, a minimum of difficulty, and tasty fruit. A couple of caveats: Some serviceberries have been bred for ornamental purposes over fruit production, so if fruit is your primary goal, look for varieties found in orchard tree catalogs. Also, serviceberries are rose family plants, akin to crabapples, so you might expect some pests and foliar issues that can detract from their appearance later in the year. This doesn’t affect fruit quality and production, just the aesthetics of the plant. The fruit ripens in June, tastes somewhat like blueberries, is abundantly produced, and is good for fresh eating and baking. Birds will get their share, trust me, but that’s fine.
 

Serviceberries are stunning in bloom, extremely productive, and many offer outstanding fall color.
 

So any of these trees make fine additions to your yard or community gardens. They are attractive, adaptable, fruitful, and almost guaranteed to not turn you into a bitter curmudgeon.

 

A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Scott Beuerlein, and Marilyn Stewart.

 

Posted: 08/28/17   RSS | Print

 

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