Unusual Fruits for Philly Orchards: The Benefits of Being Different

Posted on Categories Blog, Home, Orchard Care, Plants, POP OrchardsTags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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!  

Native to East Asia, the goumi fruit is an early-spring producer with tart-sweet berries that have small pits and richly speckled coral-red skin.

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.  

As the native Juneberry tree ripens, the berries turn from magenta into a deep blue-purple and their flavor develops with its signature blueberry-almond-cherry notes.

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.  

2016 intern Lucia Kearney harvests Nanking cherries at Awbury Arboretum.

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! 

Jujubes (aka Chinese red date) at the SHARE orchard.  This fruit has been cultivated for four thousand years and features vitamin C-rich fruit that are easy to grow and very productive!

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!

One of the first trees to flower in late winter/early spring, cornelian cherry of the Dogwood family provides fodder for early pollinators like birds and bees!

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):

  1. Fig
  2. Paw-paw
  3. Asian Pear (although a common fruit, pretty pest and disease resistant)
  4. Juneberry
  5. Asian Persimmon
  6. American Persimmon
  7. Mulberry
  8. Jujube
  9. Crab Apple
  10. Che fruit
  11. Cornelian Cherry
  12. Kousa Dogwood
  13. Trifoliate Orange (Only citrus hardy to the region)
  14. Medlar
  15. Quince

UNCOMMON FRUITING SHRUBS (most recommended to least):

  1. Nanking Cherry
  2. Goumi
  3. Red & White Currants
  4. Jostaberry
  5. Black Currants
  6. Clove Currants
  7. Gooseberry
  8. Elderberry
  9. Beach Plum
  10. Black Chokeberry
  11. Rugosa Rose (aka Rose Hips)
  12. Flowering Quince
  13. Honey Berry

UNCOMMON FRUITING VINES (most recommended to least):

  1. Hardy Kiwi
  2. Arctic Beauty Kiwi
  3. Maypop


  1. Alpine Strawberry
  2. Prickly Pear


  1. Hardy Almonds (almond x peach crosses)
  2. Chestnuts and Chinquapins
  3. Hazels and Filberts
  4. Pecans and Hickories
  5. Walnuts and Heartnuts

ZONE 8 FRUITING PLANTS (require winter protection):

  1. Pomegranate
  2. Olive
  3. Chilean Guava
  4. Pineapple Guava
  5. Loquat
  6. Yuzu

NOTE: The lists above are not exhaustive- so many options!  Here is a link to the workshop slides for more details:

Unusual Fruits for Philly 

This POP blog was written by 2018 Events & Education Intern Alex Zaremba. 

Support us! 

If you find this entry useful, informative, or inspiring, please consider a donation of any size to help POP in planting and supporting community orchards in Philadelphia: phillyorchards.org/donate

POP Orchard Partner Feature: 5000 Cedars & Jewish Farm School

Posted on Categories Blog, Home, POP OrchardsTags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
A garden for all ages, even the little ones get their hands in on the action!

For the past nearly six years, Nati Passow and Rachel Tali Kaplan of 5000 Cedars and Jewish Farm School have been working to build a bountiful garden, communal gathering space, and home-scale food forest from three de-fenced, vacant lots in West Philadelphia. Their project is part of a growing movement of de-fencing advocates that work in community alongside neighbors to join parcels of land for regenerative food growing and community organizing practices.

A candle-lit Shabbat dinner in the garden

The project began in 2012 when the couple bought the vacant lot next door to their home and began seeding with neighbors a vision for a neighborhood teaching and feeding garden. After a few years of rubble removal, building and reorganizing, the space now serves as a hub for community potlucks, homesteading classes offered through the Jewish Farm School, and other religious and secular celebrations like Shabbat dinners and Passover seders tied to the Jewish agricultural year.

Community members welcome the Sabbath with prayers and song in the JFS garden and orchard

“More than anything,” Passow shared, we wanted to create a demonstration of what people in the city can do on the home-scale, or a little bigger, within the same ballpark. We are excited to model that with this space and invite passerby to eat some food and learn about the plants.”

In July 2016, the Philadelphia Orchard Project took on 5000 Cedars & JFS as a supported orchard partner site.  POP assisted in developing an orchard design and installation began in fall 2016 – adding plum and fig trees out front, in addition to a pie cherry, paw paws, blueberries, blackberries, chokeberry, currant and gooseberry. Local mushroom farm Mycopolitan also joined on board – inoculating  Stropharia wine cap mushroom spawn amongst the blackberries to boost soil fertility, as they’ve done through several other POP sites. In fall 2017 the orchard was transformed into a food forest with additional plantings of diverse perennial flowers, herbs, and groundcovers.  

Phil Forsyth prepares fruit trees for planting at the site

“It’s truly been a community effort,” Passow said. “Volunteer groups have helped transform the space during cleanups and build days, and every time we host a gathering or class, our mission gets stronger.” Since its founding, 5000 Cedars and JFS have provided platforms for local teachers and ag educators to share their knowledge with the community geared around urban sustainability and resilience – offering such classes as small scale backyard vegetable production, composting, medicine making, and more.

Nati Passow and volunteers plant native paw paw fruit tree seedlings

“We hope that when people walk into the space they’re amazed at what they see and the possibility of what you can achieve. We’re well on our way,” Passow said. 

To learn more about Jewish Farm School, their mission of using food and agriculture as tools for social justice and spiritual mindfulness, and to view their list of Shtetl Skills workshops for ongoing educational offerings, visit their website here.

This POP Partner Feature was written by Education Director Alyssa Schimmel. 

SUPPORT US!  If you found this entry useful, informative, or inspiring, please consider a donation of any size to help POP in planting and supporting community orchards in Philadelphia: phillyorchards. org/donate.

Plant Spotlight: Meet the Pawpaw! (Asimina triloba)

Posted on Categories Blog, Cooking & Preservation, Harvesting, Home, Orchard Care, Plant Profiles, Plants, Propagation, Recipes, Tree Care, Wild EdiblesTags , , , , , , ,

By 2016 POP Intern, Lucia Kearney.

I first encountered the pawpaw one late-September day when my former elementary school art teacher came to my parents’ house for dinner. She and her husband had gone foraging for them on Swarthmore College’s campus before heading our way. I was perplexed; these fruits were native to the area, growing right down the street, and I’d never even heard of them. The fruits had yellow-green skin, and were somewhat lumpy and filled with large, dark seeds that were easy to squeeze out. The texture I found strange–it’s often been described as “custard-like”–and the flavor was very particular. Many say that pawpaws have a rich banana flavor with hints of pineapple or mango, an observation reflected in the many nicknames the pawpaw has earned in North America, including the Hoosier Banana, the Poor-Man’s Banana, and, my personal favorite, the Banango. The late-September day remains the only time I’ve ever tried a pawpaw, but after reading up on them for this blog post, I’m looking forward to trying them again when they’re ripe this September.

Paw Paw tree at the Tertulias Orchard in North Philadelphia.
Paw Paw tree at the Tertulias Orchard in North Philadelphia.

The common pawpaw has the great distinction of bearing the largest fruit native to North America. Pawpaws were first documented in the 1541 report of the Spanish de Soto expedition who encountered Native Americans who were cultivating pawpaws east of the Mississippi River. They grow in most of the eastern United States, as well as in southeastern Canada. These trees usually grow to be between 10 and 26 feet in height, though some have been known to reach up to 40 feet. As a result of their long, gracefully drooping leaves, Martin Crawford describes the pawpaw as having a “sleepy” look.

The Sleepy Pawpaw
The Sleepy Pawpaw

Their flowers are a sight to behold, unlike any other flowers on POP’s orchard trees, and seemingly less delicate. They begin bloom in mid-April, and many are just emerging right now. Flower buds form only on one-year-old wood, and each flower has six petals (three inner and three outer) that start out green, turn brown, and then finally transition to a dark red. Interestingly, pawpaws are not pollinated by bees, but rather by flies and beetles. As such, flowers have a faint but unpleasant smell. In order to increase rates of pollination, you can hand pollinate by using a small paintbrush to take pollen from the flowers on one tree and apply it to the flowers of another tree.  Some growers will even lay decomposing animal carcasses beneath pawpaws in order to attract more carrion flies! Interplanting with other smelly carrion flowers (such as the native Wild Ginger, Asarum canadense) is also a wise strategy.

A pawpaw flower
A pawpaw flower

A single flower can produce a cluster of several fruits. While the pawpaws that I tried were of a particular wild variety, fruits are usually oblong and sometimes banana-shaped. Wild pawpaws average about 3.6 inches in length by 1.4 inches in width, while selected cultivars can get to be up to six inches by 3 inches. The skin is usually thin and smooth and easily bruised, while the flesh varies from white to yellow-orange (it should be noted, though, that white-fleshed varieties tend to be bitter and inedible).

Pawpaw fruit
Pawpaw fruit


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. 

The best thing to do with pawpaws is, of course, to eat them! Pawpaws can be eaten raw or cooked and can be used in salads, for making preserves, pies, cookies, and cakes, amongst other things. Apparently, chilled pawpaw was George Washington’s favorite desert! To loosen the seeds, roll the fruit between your hands. You can also cut them in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon, or peel them like bananas. The internet is filled with recipes for pawpaws, including this New York Times piece on Pawpaw Pudding (that I fully intend on making this Thanksgiving). Asked if there were various other fruits or vegetables that could be used to replace pawpaw, Appalachian chefs told the author again and again, “forget it, there’s nothing like a pawpaw.” For more recipes, check out Kentucky State University’s multitude of recipes here, including pawpaw cream pie, pawpaw custard, and pawpaw ice cream.

Pawpaw pudding
Pawpaw pudding

Pawpaws are wonderfully nutritious. They are higher in unsaturated fats, proteins, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin C, and many other minterals and amino acids than peaches or apples.

There have been some reported allergic reactions to the fruit, mainly to substances in the fruit’s skin, and especially in fruits that have not completely ripened. The seeds are inedible and, in fact, were traditionally crushed and used as an emetic, as well as to treat head lice. They also make beautiful seed beads.

The long, brown beads in this necklace are pawpaw seeds!
The long, brown beads in this necklace are pawpaw seeds!

The bark contains natural pesticides called acetogenins. Interestingly, the larvae of the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly feed exclusively on the young leaves of pawpaws (though they usually do so in numbers small enough as to be no problem for the plants). These butterflies are not only immune to the acetogenins but carry them with them once they become butterflies, rendering the butterflies unpalatable to birds and other predators.

Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly Caterpillar Eating a Pawpaw leaf
Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly Caterpillar Eating a Pawpaw leaf
Zebra Swallowtail
Zebra Swallowtail

Two substances obtained from the bark – asimicin and trilobacin – are currently being tested as anticancer agents. The inner-bark of the pawpaw is stringy and fibrous; traditionally it was stripped from branches in the early spring to be used to make fishing nets and ropes.

Growing Pawpaws

While pawpaws in the wild often clonally propagate via suckers, cultivated varieties are usually started from seed. Seeds should be stratified at 35˚ to 40˚ Fahrenheit for between 60 and 100 days before sowing. Make sure that seeds don’t dry out or freeze, as this can kill the dormant embryo. After stratification, soak the seeds in warm water for 24 hours, and then plant about 1 inch deep in deep containers. Heat the containers at about 80˚ from the bottom. Germination takes around 2-3 weeks, and a shoot should emerge after around 2 months. Growth is slow for the first 1-2 years.

Pawpaw seeds
Pawpaw seeds

Root cuttings are often successful as well. Plant 6inch lengths of tap root deep in the ground in the spring. New plants will emerge in the following season.

Named cultivars are often propagated via chip-budding or grafting.

Plant out baby pawpaw trees when they are between 12 and 40 inches tall. They have long and brittle taproots, so it’s important to take care while transplanting. Space trees 13 feet apart and mulch well; pawpaws do not like competition, especially from grass. Once planted, pawpaws require little attention; pruning should be limited to dead or crossing branches, though the occasional heading cut can be used to shorten limbs and encourage lateral growth. Suckers begin to emerge once the trees start bearing fruit and can pop up as far as 10 feet from the parent tree. These can be cut, mown, or left to grow. Trees grow about 16in/year, and should be about 5ft tall after 4-6 years. Cross-pollination is necessary for fruit production, so it’s best to have more than one tree. If necessary, hand pollination can increase yields. They also grow well with walnuts.

Baby pawpaw saplings
Baby pawpaw saplings

Pawpaws require a minimum of 160 frost-free days and like rich, moist, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic (ideally with a pH between 5.0 and 7.0). They need plenty of water through the summer months – at least 32 inches of rainfall per year – and will tolerate partial shade, especially in hot climates. They often form thickets in the woods beneath tall, shade canopy trees. However, more sunlight will result in more fruit.

Pawpaws are fairly free of pests and diseases, and deer and rabbits leave the leaves and bark alone. However, deer, squirrels, foxes, birds, and other critters will eat the fruit. Pawpaws do sometimes fall prey to the larva of the small Tortricid moth, which can burrow into the flowers causing them to wither, blacken, and drop, potentially lowering fruit yields significantly.

Tortricid moth larva
Tortricid moth larva
Tortricid moth adult
Tortricid moth adult

Fully-ripe fruit will fall to the ground, so it’s usually best to pick them a little bit early and allow them to ripen indoors. Take care when harvesting, as fruits are easily bruised. They can be stored for many weeks in the cold, but should be eaten within 3 days when ripe and left at room temperature. Trees produce every year, about 20-30 fruits per tree, though some varieties may produce double that.

Happy pawpawing!

SUPPORT US!  If you found this entry useful, informative, or inspiring, please consider a donation of any size to help POP in planting and supporting community orchards in Philadelphia: phillyorchards.org/donate.


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.

The information presented on this website is for informational, reference, and educational purposes only and should not be interpreted as a substitute for diagnosis and treatment by a health care professional. Always consult a health care professional or medical doctor when suffering from any health ailment, disease, illness, or injury, or before attempting any traditional or folk remedies. Keep all plants away from children. As with any natural product, they can be toxic if misused.

To the best of our knowledge,​ the information contained herein is accurate and we have endeavored to provide sources for any borrowed​ material. Any testimonials on this web site are based on individual results and do not constitute a warranty of safety or guarantee that you will achieve the same results.

Neither the Philadelphia Orchard Project nor its employees, volunteers, or website contributors may be held liable or responsible for any allergy, illness,​ or injurious effect that any person or animal may suffer as a result of reliance on the information contained on this website nor as a result of the ingestion or use of any of the plants mentioned ​herein.


Trees for Gardens, Orchards and Permaculture by Martin Crawford








Picture 1 – Philadelphia Orchard Project photo

Picture 2 – http://ediblelandscaping.com/products/trees/Pawpaws/

Picture 3 – http://www.carolinanature.com/trees/astr.html

Picture 4 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asimina_triloba

Picture 5 – http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1016961-pawpaw-pudding

Pictures 6 & 7 – https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&ved=0ahUKEwjcs6KdxKrMAhVIcj4KHRc4BiUQjxwIAw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bettyhallphotography.com%2Fzebra-swallowtail-butterfly%2F&psig=AFQjCNH_GzJJg6BZ001-VqEWWwqUFqD64Q&ust=1461699260821472

Picture 8 – https://www.flickr.com/photos/starmer/2916765037

Picture 9 – http://www.blossomnursery.com/pawpaw_baby_superior_seedlings.htm