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
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.
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
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 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 (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).