Uncommon fruit: Delectable, pest-resistant, exotic and attractive
Pawpaws, hardy kiwifruits, shipovas and other varieties offer tremendous potential for even northern areas.

By Lee Reich

Shipova: pear-like
with “something special”

Although shipova (X Sorbus auricularis) is a fruit that has been known at least since the 1600s, it is rarely planted. It is one of those rare intergeneric hybrids, in this case between European pear and whitebeam, a relative of mountain ash. It resembles a small, yellow pear in appearance— somewhat rounded with a red blush on the side kissed by the sun. The flavor is also pear-like but with a little something special, as well as a most pleasant meaty texture.

Shipova can become a fairly large tree that, thankfully, requires little or no pruning. Tree size is a potential drawback as is the length of time it takes to bear, but both problems might be solved with some dwarfing rootstocks now being tested. As a relative of pear and apple, shipova is subject to similar pest problems but, thus far, pest problems have been insignificant.

--LR

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 taste great.

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.

Pawpaw

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 and avocado.

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

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 member.

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 spring frosts.

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 Yellow.

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

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 sprays.

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).