On February 10th 2018, more than 20 people gathered at Awbury Agricultural Village to learn about some of the “unusual” fruits that POP plants and why. There were some great takeaways from this workshop including learning more in depth about some of the less common options available to Philadelphia-based orchards. The most important piece from my perspective, was understanding that these “unusual” fruits were not just exciting because they were less common, but because they are also generally a lot easier to care for compared to common fruits.
Apples and peaches were highlighted as being among the most challenging to grow in our climate because of intense pest and disease pressure. They and all of the other common fruits are closely related members of the Rosaceae family and are prone to a variety of growing challenges, resulting in greater need for pruning, spraying, and other maintenance requirements.
By contrast, figs, paw paws, persimmons and other “unusual” fruits are less commonly planted, more distantly related, and much easier to grow and maintain. How much easier? This depends on the specific plant, but most have very few pest and disease challenges and many approach our idyllic vision of fruit growing as “plant, water, and then harvest year after year”.
So it’s one thing for certain fruits to be easier to grow, but what about the other benefits? Well, with more than 30 fruits discussed, plus a handful of nuts and some zone 8 possibilities, there’s a great variety and selection to choose from, and by incorporating a diverse array of them into your growing space, you can continue to lessen the impact of pests and diseases, which favor targeting large stands of singular plantings (or ‘monocultures’) rather than having to scavenge through mixed plantings all over the city.
Another benefit from planting more unusual fruits is the opportunity to increase your window for harvestable fruit – beginning in May with the goumi berry, a sweet-tart berry that can be used for jellies or syrups. The goumi is a medium sized shrub that is self-fertile (meaning you only need one to produce fruit); partial-shade tolerant; and nitrogen fixing (meaning it absorbs the important nutrient nitrogen from the air and adds it to the soil near its roots, thus feeding itself and other neighboring plants). An ideal plant for food forests!
Come June, there are many harvest options among the unusual fruit set — including the aforementioned goumi; the mulberry, beloved by birds as the sweetest fruit; honey berry, a small shrub with blueberry like fruits; alpine strawberries, which produce crops in both June and in September/October and grow low to the ground, tolerant of partial-shade, and in addition to producing sweet berries, are also quite attractive; and of course juneberries, which get their name from the their ripening month. A true POP favorite, juneberries (also known as serviceberries) have a widespread presence in Philly as a native planting that is frequently featured as a street tree throughout the city.
If you’re interested in getting a more hands-on experience with juneberries, keep a look-out for POP’s 3rd annual Juneberry Joy week in Spring 2018. We’ll be harvesting juneberries from throughout the city with volunteers and then partnering with local businesses to feature some delicious juneberry products.
In July at the peak of summer, your options are a’plenty! Nanking cherries, black, clove, red and white currants, gooseberry, jostaberry, and beach plum are all in fruit this time of year. These mostly small and medium shrubs offer a variety of tasty, healthy fruits; nanking cherries are quite productive and ornamental; and currants are especially shade tolerant.
From August through November, another 15+ shrubs and trees enter their prime blossoming and fruit period: figs, paw paws, persimmons, jujubes, cornelian cherry, elderberries, and hardy kiwis, to name a few!
By working with a diversity of plants, POP orchards are able to meet a wide range of needs, whether it be producing fruits for specific times of the year (useful to consider for school orchard sites) or throughout the entire year, providing benefit to the community as well as to pollinators, offering a variety of food crops that can be used to make value added products, frozen, dried, or of course eaten fresh!
It’s exciting to know that there are so many options for low-maintenance fruit-bearing shrubs and trees that provide so many different benefits to the orchard. If you’re interested in learning more about these easy-to-grow options, below is a list in order from most recommended (for both ease of care and deliciousness) to least recommended.
Also, I would be remiss not to mention the AMAZING paw-paw pudding Phil provided at the end of the workshop – which was a real treat!
UNCOMMON FRUIT TREES (most recommended to least for ease of care and deliciousness):
Asian Pear (although a common fruit, pretty pest and disease resistant)
Trifoliate Orange (Only citrus hardy to the region)
UNCOMMON FRUITING SHRUBS (most recommended to least):
Red & White Currants
Rugosa Rose (aka Rose Hips)
UNCOMMON FRUITING VINES (most recommended to least):
Arctic Beauty Kiwi
UNCOMMON FRUITING GROUNDCOVERS:
NUT-PRODUCING TREES AND SHRUBS:
Hardy Almonds (almond x peach crosses)
Chestnuts and Chinquapins
Hazels and Filberts
Pecans and Hickories
Walnuts and Heartnuts
ZONE 8 FRUITING PLANTS (require winter protection):
NOTE: The lists above are not exhaustive- so many options! Here is a link to the workshop slides for more details:
Despite their reputation as a weed tree, many people in both urban and rural environments have very fond childhood memories of mulberries! My own past is filled deliciously with mulberries. When I was a kid, my parents worked in Manayunk. On days when there was no school, I’d go to work with them, and in the summertime I was always happy to see the mulberry tree growing by the parking lot. At their office picnic in Chestnut Hill, there was mulberry tree in the front yard where my brother and scores of other office kids and I would stuff ourselves full of fruit. There was a mulberry tree in our neighbor’s yard when we moved to the suburbs, and mulberry trees by Henderson Field. Needless to say, mulberries are something that I look forward to and thoroughly enjoy every year.
Mulberries are a temperate and subtropical group of trees and shrubs – just walking around Philadelphia, you’re sure to encounter several different species. White or Common Mulberries (Morus alba) originate from China, Black Mulberries (Morus nigra) from Western Asia, Russian Mulberries (Morus alba ‘Tatarica’) from Northern China, and Red Mulberries (Morus rubra) come from the Eastern United States. Many of the mulberry trees found in the city are wild seedlings that are a cross between White and Red Mulberry species.
Mulberries and people have been pals for a long long time; they actually figure prominently in a Babylonian myth about the tragic lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. In a story of forbidden love very similar to that of Romeo and Juliet, Pyramus and Thisbe, forbidden by their families to marry, agree to meet beneath a mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives first, but flees after seeing a lioness, mouth bloody from a recent kill, accidentally leaving her veil behind. Pyramus, arriving later, sees veil and bloody-mouthed lion and, assuming that Thisbe has been eaten, kills himself. Thisbe returns to the scene to find the body of Pyramus, and kills herself out of grief. Their blood is said to have stained the previously white fruit red.
Mulberries are generally irregularly shaped, bushy-headed trees, with trunks that often lean. Size depends largely on the species – White Mulberries are usually 30 to 50 feet in height and Red Mulberries can reach as high as 70 feet. Black Mulberries tend to be much smaller, occasionally reaching 30 feet in height. Longevity varies as well; while Black Mulberries can bear fruit for hundreds of years, Red Mulberries rarely make it past 75 years. Leaves are alternate, heart-shaped, or lobed, with what looks like serrated edges and pointed tips.
Flowers often go unnoticed unless you’re looking for them – they are small and feathery and roughly resemble the fruit that they’ll go onto produce. Some varieties are dioecious (meaning that trees are either male or female) while others are monoecious (meaning trees have both male and female parts). Trees are wind-pollinated, no cross-pollination is necessary, and some cultivars will set fruit without any pollination at all.
Fruits also vary in color, size, and ripening time. Confusingly, the color of the fruit does not reliably identify the species; White Mulberries (in spite of the story of Thisbe and Pyramus) can have white, lavender, or black fruit; Red Mulberries are deep red to almost black, and Black Mulberries are usually large, dark, and juicy. Berries tend to resemble raspberries and blackberries in form, though they are generally longer and narrower. The Himalayan Mulberry – which I’m dying to try – produces berries that can reach several inches in length! White and Red Mulberries ripen in late spring, while Black mulberries ripen in summer to late summer. All mulberries ripen over a period of around six weeks rather than all at once, which is good news for us mulberry lovers.
Mulberries are actually the sweetest of all fruit! Fruits can be eaten raw or cooked, and can also be made into wine, cordials, jams, tarts, cobblers, or tossed onto oatmeal or cooked into pancakes. Fruits can also be dried, and made into fruit leather if combined with other, more fibrous fruit. The possibilities are endless; an image search for ‘mulberry recipes’ comes up with dazzling results, I promise you. Be aware that the fruit doesn’t keep long raw – once picked, it should be eaten or cooked within a few days (this is one reason why you don’t generally see mulberries in grocery stores). Also take care while picking black mulberries as their juice will stain hands and clothing (and whatever else you get on them) purple; as such, mulberry juice can also be used as a natural dye. In China, mulberry juice is produced commercially on a large scale and is quite popular; the juice stays fresh for several months without preservatives.
The leaves – when prepared properly – can also be eaten (please read disclaimer at the bottom of this article before consuming any mulberry leaves). In the Middle East, mulberry leaves are stuffed with ground chicken or lamb. Check out a recipe for chicken stuffed mulberry leaves here. Take note that raw, white mulberry leaves contain toxins that can irritate the stomach and skin, and are said to be slightly hallucinogenic. However, once steamed, the leaves can be safely eaten and used in pies, lasagnas, and salads. Dried mulberry leaf powder – which is high in protein and carbohydrates, and has a distinct, fragrant smell – is used as an additive in buns, bread, cakes, and biscuits in China. A tea can also be made from the dried leaves.
Famously, mulberries (usually White Mulberries) are cultivated as food for silkworms; silkworms exclusively eat the leaves of certain species of mulberry (they don’t, for example, eat black mulberries), and in China and Japan, many mulberries are grown solely for this purpose. One of the reasons that White Mulberries and their hybrids are so common in the United States is that they were originally imported to try to start a silk industry in the 1830’s. It takes around 33-40lbs of fresh mulberries to produce just 2.2lbs of fresh cocoon.uses,
The stems and stem powder are also a good medium for mushroom production; wood ear mushrooms and the medicinal fungus Ganoderma lucidum are produced on mulberry logs or powder.
All parts of the mulberry contain a milky sap that can be used to make a type of rubber, and several species have fibrous bast fibers beneath the bark that can be used to make rope or paper. The wood is a deep yellow, hard, strong, durable, flexible, and coarse grained and is valued for carving, inlays in cabinet work, and for the crafting of musical instruments.
Birds adore mulberries, so some orchardists plant mulberries as a trap crop to tempt birds away from whatever fruit they’re producing. In particular, mulberry fruit season overlaps with that of cherries and blueberries, which are the crops most often lost to birds. Russian mulberries – which are hardier and whose blossoms are not as easily damaged by high winds – are often used as windbreaks.
Nutritional Information/Medicinal Uses
NOTE: The following information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Please read our full edible/medicinal use disclaimer at the end of this article and seek medical advice from a qualified professional before using a new plant in your diet.
Mulberries are rich in carotene, and in vitamins B1, B2, and C. In fact, one cup of raw mulberries contains 85% of the daily recommended intake of vitamin C! They are also high in iron, vitamin K1, potassium, and vitamin E. Mulberries also contain anthocyanins, a family of antioxidants that may help to lower cholesterol prevent hard disease, and rutin, a powerful antioxidant that may help to protect against cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Traditionally, mulberries have been used as a mild laxative. The USDA reports that leaves from the white mulberry tree have been used to treat sore throats, eye infections, and colds. Mulberry leaves are rich in gamma-aminobutylic acid, which is effective in reducing high blood pressure, as well as in alanine, which is useful in easing hangovers. The American Diabetes Association has also noted that mulberry leaves may help to reduce blood sugar levels in people suffering from type-2 diabetes.
Considered by some to be a weed tree, it’s not surprising that mulberries are often disease-free and tend to thrive in challenging conditions and poor soils. All species prefer full sun in cooler climates, but will tolerate partial shade. While mulberries prefer moist soil, they are drought resistant once established, and require little to no fertilization. They are also tolerant of groundcover and can grow well with grass beneath.
There are named varieties of all species of mulberry selected for their fruit quality. The Philadelphia Orchard Project has primarily planted the variety ‘Illinois Everbearing’, which is known for its large, tasty, seedless fruit and long season of harvest. Although Black Mulberries are the species most commonly grown for their fruit around the world, they are only marginally hardy in Philadelphia (zone 7). POP is now experimenting with planting some dwarf varieties of Black Mulberry in more protected locations.
Mulberries can also be propagated via seed – which requires 16 weeks of stratification – or by hardwood cuttings made in the winter, grafting/chip budding, layering, or air layering. Some species can also be propagated from softwood cuttings in the summer. Using mycorrhizal fungi spores as a cuttings dip reportedly increases the success rate of propagation.
Young trees should be planted between 25-35ft apart in the spring or fall. Some formative pruning can be done in the first few years to establish a strong 4-5 branch framework; otherwise, pruning should only be done to remove dead or crossing branches. Pruning should be done in the wintertime while trees are dormant. If trees are being used as a windbreak, they should be planted 8-20ft apart, and can withstand clipping if needed. White mulberry leaves can also be grown as a vegetable crop. To do this, trees are planted densely in rows and coppiced annually at a height of 2-3 feet. Fresh leaves can then be picked throughout the growing season.
And so this year let’s give thanks for the hardy and abundant mulberry! I’m looking forward to making many more mulberry memories, and I hope you all are too.
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The Philadelphia Orchard Project stresses that you should not consume parts of any wild edible plants, herbs, weeds, trees, or bushes until you have verified with your health professional that they are safe for you. As with any new foods that you wish to try, it is best to introduce them slowly into your diet in small amounts.
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