September 14, 2006: There’s gold in
them thar’ . . . fruits. Uncommon fruits. At least that’s
what I and a number of other agricultural researchers and
potential consumers believe.
Most growers gravitate toward the familiar when considering
what fruits to plant. But grow these fruits and you’re
competing on the world market; apples, for instance, are grown
and shipped almost everywhere to be marketed as a round, red
commodity. Furthermore, familiar tree fruits such as apples,
peaches and cherries are beset with serious pest problems
across much of the country. Raspberries, strawberries and
blueberries are relatively free of pest problems but they,
like the familiar tree fruits, are also grown and shipped
all over the country. People often habitually purchase these
fruits along with their other supermarket items, unaware of
the “dessert” delicacies that ripe, fresh fruits
can truly be.
Consider, then, a handful of uncommon fruits that, in addition
to having unique and delectable flavors, are relatively free
of pest problems. Such fruits could tap into specialty markets,
including those catering to the growing population that appreciates
organically grown foods, ethnic foods, or just foods that
These uncommon fruits are ideal for direct marketing where
the consumer has the chance to sample and ask questions, and
where long-distance shipping and long-term storage need not
be considerations. I am reminded of a recent “sustainable
agriculture” fair to which I was invited in New York
City; my booth was swamped with people begging to know where
they could buy the pawpaws, hardy kiwifruits and shipovas
I was handing out as samples.
Let’s start with pawpaw (Asimina triloba),
an uncommon fruit with good market potential. Although fully
cold-hardy over most of the country (to USDA Zone 4), pawpaw
has many tropical aspirations and appeal. This northernmost
member of the custard apple family grows to become a medium-sized
tree with large, lush leaves resembling those of avocado.
The mango-sized fruit itself is reminiscent of banana: It
hangs in bunches, and the creamy white flesh inside has often
been likened to banana in flavor. In my opinion, the flavor
of the best pawpaws is more like crème brulee (but
without the fat or added sugar), or perhaps a combination
of banana and vanilla custard along with a touch of pineapple
Pawpaw is also easy to grow. The tree is not choosy about
soil, requiring the same good drainage, moderate fertility
and full sunlight as most other fruit plants. Once pawpaw
is up and growing, it should require no sprays and little
or no pruning. Space plants 10 to 15 feet apart in the rows.
Pawpaws are a little more difficult to transplant than most
fruit trees, so it's best to purchase plants from a reputable
nursery and plant with care. Some people prefer to plant potted
trees. In any case, if you want to reap the best quality fruit
in the shortest time, start with a grafted tree of some named
variety. A couple of dozen varieties are available from nurseries.
Among my favorites are Zimmerman and those in the Pennsylvania
Golden series, the latter known for ripening earlier than
most pawpaws. At least two different varieties are needed
for cross-pollination, and fruit is borne on both varieties.
In late summer and early fall, pawpaw fruits begin to ripen—their
skins turn lighter green or yellowish and speckled brown (again,
like a banana). In addition to providing weed control and
water conservation, maintaining organic mulch beneath the
trees cushions the fall of any ripe fruits, which will eventually
drop. Fully ripe fruits store for a few days, fruits picked
slightly underripe will keep for a few weeks under refrigeration
before ripening and the pulp freezes well.
The handling of the ripe fruits is really the major market
limitation of pawpaw—a problem that can evaporate with
sufficient customers sufficiently hungry for their taste.
Hardy kiwifruit (Actinidia arguta) is another uncommon
fruit whose claim to market success lies in its delectable
flavor. This cousin to the familiar supermarket kiwifruit
is grape-sized, with a smooth, edible skin that makes it convenient
to eat. The interior appearance and the flavor are similar
to supermarket kiwifruit except the hardy kiwifruit has a
sweeter flavor and aroma making it the more delicious family
Hardy kiwifruit is a very vigorous vine needing sturdy support
and regular pruning—a few times each season. I grow
my hardy kiwifruits on a trellis built from T-shaped posts
that stand six feet high by five feet wide, and are set about
30 feet apart in the row. Along the tops I run five parallel
wires. I train each young plant, set 10 feet apart, up a stake
to the center wire then prune the top of the developing trunk
so it makes two branches. Each branch runs in opposite directions
along that center wire, with fruiting arms growing out perpendicular
to that branch and draped over the outer wires.
No plant is perfect, and hardy kiwifruit has its flaws. First
of all, you need a separate, nonfruiting male for pollination—but
one male can sire up to about eight females. Second, although
the plants are very cold hardy with age (to USDA Zone 4),
they are not very cold hardy when young. I wrap the young
trunks in winter to keep off the sun and the full force of
winter cold. And third, hardy kiwifruits begin growth early
in the season, so early that late spring frosts sometimes
nip or kill back tender new shoots, another characteristic
that seems to diminish with age. Give hardy kiwifruits a site,
such as a north slope, that is not particularly prone to late
Limitations aside, hardy kiwifruit is relatively pest-free
and yields a delectable fruit that you just pop into your
mouth. Harvest-time is late summer and early fall, and fruits
can be stored in good condition for weeks if harvested slightly
underripe. Anna, earlier-ripening Geneva and Dumbarton are
some particularly good fruiting varieties.
Gooseberries and currants
Gooseberries and currants (Ribes spp.) both began
their rise in popularity a hundred years ago, fell out of
favor in the 1920s when they were blamed for spreading a devastating
white pine disease, and have recently been recapturing interest.
They are both fruits of northern climates and do best in
the upper half of the country. They are among the few fruits
that do not require full sunlight; mine thrive in the partial
shade between my planting of pawpaw trees.
Currants and gooseberries are borne on bushes growing about
4-feet high and wide, more or less depending on the particular
varieties. Keep the plants vigorous and fruitful with a renewal
method of pruning, cutting the oldest wood and some of the
youngest wood down to the ground each winter.
Blackcurrants bear best on 1-year-old wood, so remove any
stems the winter after they bear fruit. Gooseberries and redcurrants
(which also come in pink and white) bear best on 1-, 2-, and
3-year-old stems, so remove any stems older than 3 years old.
The key to success with gooseberries and currants is choosing
varieties that are disease resistant and have good flavor.
Unfortunately, the very best-tasting varieties of gooseberry
are too susceptible to diseases to be recommended. But almost
as flavorful—and very disease resistant—are varieties
such as Poorman, Glendale, Red Jacket, Captivator and Hinonmakis
All these varieties are excellent for fresh eating, not just
for cooking, as most Americans assume of the gooseberry varieties
with which they’re probably familiar. Red Jacket, Pink
Champagne and, my favorite for fresh flavor, Primus, are good,
respectively, as red, pink and white currant varieties.
Blackcurrants are, in fact, susceptible to that pine disease
which gave currants and gooseberries their bad name. Fortunately,
there are a number of resistant or immune varieties, including
Consort, Ben Sarek and Titania. Fresh blackcurrants have a
very strong flavor that some people love and others hate,
so they are usually used in juices, jams and tarts (which
most everyone loves). Another selling point is the extremely
high concentration of vitamin C and antioxidants in the fruit.
I am among those who enjoy their blackcurrants “straight
up,” and my favorite variety for fresh eating is Belaruskaja.
Medlar (Mespilus germanica) garners a very dedicated
but perhaps limited following. The downfall of the fruit is
not its flavor but its appearance. Picture a small apple,
brown and russetted, with its calyx end—the end opposite
the stem—flared open. A writer of the last century described
medlar as “a brownish green, truncated little spheroid
of unsympathetic appearance.”
What’s worse, a medlar is not edible right at harvest
in autumn. It must be “bletted,” which means allowed
to soften on a shelf or a counter in a cool room. It’s
much like ripening a pear, except that the interior of the
medlar fruit, when ripe, is brown and mushy. Despite its unappetizing
appearance, the flavor is delectable—something like
rich apple sauce with overtones of wine and a dash of spice.
Medlar is a small tree that is very easy to grow. Given full
sun and average-good soil, just about every flower—which
open late enough in spring to reliably escape frosts—will
go on to ripen a fruit with little or no pruning and no pesticide
Pawpaw, hardy kiwifruit, gooseberry, currant and medlar are
not the only uncommon fruits with commercial potential. Give
them a try, then go on to also consider growing other uncommon
fruits such as lingonberry, Asian pear, juneberry, cornelian
cherry and jujube—the cultivation of which are all described
in my book Uncommon
Fruits for Every Garden (Timber Press, 2004).