7 Year Tea Party Winners: Susan Craft's winner of her trilogy novels - The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia is: Lucy Reynolds, The winner of a copy of The Backcountry Brides is: Tammy Cordery, the winner of a silver quill charm is: Kathy Maher, Choice of one of three books by Carrie Fancett Pagels in paperback: Joy Ellis, A Bouquet of Brides Collection by Pegg Thomas winner is: Becky Smith, Janet Grunst's Selah-Award winning novel, A Heart Set Free, is: Sherry Moe.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Native Fruits for Colonial Tastes

By Debra E. Marvin, horticulturalist and just a bit fruity herself.

I saw an article proclaiming  the United States only has 3 native fruits: blueberries, cranberries and Concord grapes. Wrong! First there’s that whole fruit vs vegetable discussion (tomatoes and peppers are fruits, by the way) and there are plenty of other fruits. Okay. Maybe not commercial successes... but it's a decent list.

While we do have wild grape (buckshot sized and super tart), the Concord Grape is a hybridized plant.

Colonials had to learn what new world fruits and nuts were safe to eat, and when. Here’s a list of native plants, shrubs and trees that bear edible fruit. But don’t run out to the store expecting to find anything but cranberries and blueberries. That much was right!

CRANBERRY – related to the blueberry and very similar in growth but they love wet feet. This is a well-known northeast native, famous for its preference for bogs (they love soil acidity) and for showing up on that Thanksgiving table.
Cranberry shrub --just before flooding for harvest
HUCKLEBERRY – also called  Bilberry and sometimes ‘red blueberry’. Tarter than blueberries and have a noticeably different taste, and larger seeds. A favorite childhood memory for me is having Huckleberry Pie at my grandma's house in Pennsylvania. This plant seems to thrive in wooded, mountainous areas.
Immature PawPaw fruit
PAWPAW – the largest edible fruit native to the Colonies. It may have been named for its similarity to the tropical Papaya because it does not resemble any other fruit we know. Another name is Kentucky Banana! This is a large shrub that flowers in spring. Those flowers tend to smell yeasty at one point, rotten at another, or so I'm told. Fruit grows through the season until it is a large 2-6” yellow oblong. The flesh looks like a mango with big black seeds but is soft enough to eat like custard and tastes like banana, or melon depending on whom you ask.  This is the fruit world’s answer to the Aardvark.

SERVICEBERRY – few trees are as special and underused as the Amelanchier or “Serviceberry” (or Sarvisberry, Shadbush, Shadblow, Shadwood, Junebery, Saskatoon or SugarPlum) There are ~20 species of shrub to tree forms and all are a favorite of birds. Fresh fruits have a blueberry/almond flavor but are usually tart. The Native American food PEMMICAN sometimes had serviceberry fruits added with the meat and fat before dried into a meat ‘leather’. A great fruit for pies and jam and the tree has year round appeal. I happen to have serviceberry jam in my pantry right now.

WILD STRAWBERRY – these tiny fruits were native to Europe as well. They have a stronger taste than the hybridized strawberry and are special treats to eat, but require a huge number for any other use, due to their size and small populations.
A colony of Mayapple. A favorite sight in... May
MAY APPLE – or Mayapple.  Native to woodland borders in Eastern North America.  A curious umbrella shaped spring plant related to the Mandrake, and yes, poisonous as well, except for the edible fruit. They are not so tasty that you’d ever eat enough to get sick on, but the leaves and roots are dangerous. Like other spring understory plants, the Mayapple dies back by midsummer, but in this case, the fruit keeps growing on a small vine. Mayapples grow in small clonal colonies and provided fruit for colonial preserves.
Failing MayApple plant in summer, the fruit will continue to ripen
AMERICAN PLUM – aka Wild Plum. A true member of the plum and cherry family, Prunus americana is a wide-spread native with pretty white blossoms in spring. A shrubby plant, it spreads by suckers and colonists would have to compete with birds when the fruit ripened. Their sweet/sour taste can be enjoyed fresh, preserved or made into wine.

THIMBLEBERRY – a cousin of the raspberry, found along the edge of woodlands. It’s a dense shrub but has no prickly stems like raspberry. They are much more common in the western Great Lakes area than the Eastern seaboard. (Carrie, have you eaten these?) Thimbleberries are a soft fruit and don’t hold up or ship well, but great for pies and jam. Very seedy and sometimes not very sweet. Jams are often ½ sugar, ½ fruit.

BEACH PLUM – or ‘Seaside Plum’ Prunus maritimus (I heart scientific names!) A shrubby plant, 3-7’ tall that loves sandy soil. The blue fall fruit, smaller than imported plums, is now being grown commercially for jam. 
Beach Plum!
WILD BLACK CHERRY – a big tree with tiny white blossoms in spring. This is a bitter fruit for most of our palates. The pits and leaves can be poisonous (cyanide) and must be removed from pastures, but the fruit was used for pies and jams and the wood is still sought after for furniture. Birds can make a mess with their purple stained droppings!

BLACK RASPBERRY -- not just from Oregon! They are also native to the east coast and are enjoyed fresh during their 2-3 week harvest period as well as. . . you guessed it. . .  perfect for pies and jams. I have a shrub next to my kitchen which provides 1/3 of the fun for Triple Berry Cobbler on Fourth of July.

BLUEBERRY – a cousin to the cranberry and, in the wild, very non-committal about their harvest time-- May through August depending on weather and altitude, and they prefer slopes and mountain sides, where they thrive on acidic soil.  The ‘lowbush’ variety has a snazzy red leaf in fall. Blueberries are white inside while Bilberries are purple inside –just in case you are out wandering and need to know.  Blueberries are difficult to grow without nets as birds seem to know exactly what day they are ripe (that’s my experience, anyway).

That's my list of native "Colonial" fruits. How many of these have you tried?


  1. I'll be happy to answer questions about these fruit or why peppers are fruit or why I left wild grape off my list...
    And I'll do so but may not be responding until later today.

    Happy Friday, everyone!

    1. Wonderful article, Deb!!! I plan on using this in my writing! Love your comment about fruity lol!

    2. I hope it's a quick resource when we have a need for 'fruit knowledge!" thanks Carrie!

  2. Do you consider rose hips to be fruit? Technically it is a fleshy seed-bearing part of the plant, and I have heard of people making jam out of it. They don't have much flavor in and of themselves, though, and are kind of waxy.

    In the midwest, a least, we also have chokecherries, which I understand are quite similar to black cherries. They make an excellent syrup when the jelly doesn't set up (more often than not at my house, growing up).

  3. Yes, rose hips are a fruit and would have been a good addition. They are most commonly used for teas and herbal remedies. Super high in Vit. C, and found on 'wild' or natural roses and not the hybridized roses. I think I first encountered them in abundance on Rugosa Rose, the seaside-loving shrubby rose that is salt tolerant and now found along a lot of parking lots because of their hardiness.

    Great addition, Rachael!

    I grew up with a big tree in my yard which we called a Chokecherry. It was huge and the branches hung around it to the ground and made a full canopy. It was my play-world and hid my tree swing on three sides. I played with those fruits as I made my pretend jams. BITTER! yikes! but fun. The one in my yard now is either a chokecherry or this Wild Black Cherry. I can't decide. All I know is that it makes a terrible mess in the fall in part of my yard. But the birds are happy!

    thanks for commenting!

  4. Very interesting and educational post! When I was growing up, my dad used to pick something for us to eat, which he called a"red haws". Are you familiar with those? This was in Iowa. I barely remember what they looked like, but it seems like they were about the size of a berry.

    1. Kay, that sounded familiar and I checked. Red Haws are also called Thorn berries - all are the small fruit of the Hawthorne/ Hawthorn tree or shrub and somewhat similar to crabapples. They are all part of the family Crataegus and many are native to Europe and Asia as well as North America. Now we can see how many 'fruits' were available in the wild before we became so enamored with imported fruits (like apples!). Strangely enough, I've been doing a lot of studying on herbal remedies, as well as poisons, and Hawthorne is the basis for some modern heart medicines.

      All for fiction research, of course!
      Thanks Kay!

    2. I think Deb mustn't have seen this comment, Kay. I wonder what that was? What did it taste like?

    3. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/red+haw

      I bet this is it--a red fruited hawthorn bush??

    4. I did post an answer about the Hawthorne tree and that it's fruits were called Haws. Similar to crab apples. I'm sorry the answer disappeared. It even came to my email... is it hiding here somewhere?

      Hawthorne is also the basis for one of the medicines used for heart disease. I've been studying it for a story i'm writing. Hawthorne is native to North America, Europe and Asia and I don't think it showed up when I was researching for this post - that's odd.

  5. Love this list. I loved the wild raspberries that grew at my grandmas house.
    Susan P

    1. Thank you, Susan!
      I enjoying compiling it and plan to find out more in a 'hands-on' way. I'd love to try a PawPaw myself.

      A sign of the cool and wet spring in the northeast. My black raspberries aren't ready yet and seen to be about a week behind. They sure are wonderful, aren't they?

  6. Thank you so much for this list. I now have another weapon in my Quaker kitchen arsenal.

    1. If you do experiment with some of these fruits, I'd love to hear about it. Please comment again or contact me. We also have modern sugar in great supply so it makes me wonder how much of it was used then. I imagine it would have been costly but some of these fruits are quite bitter. I'm sure we have much less tolerance now for the tang - and they were often used as dressings for meats. More like chutneys, don't you think?

  7. Awesome list, Debra, thank you, and very informative. I didn't know about half of those when I lived back east. Here in Oregon, there's one spot we frequent that, at various times of the year, yields wild strawberry, thimbleberry, Oregon grape, and huckleberries. And you are right about where the huckleberries grow. They form the understory to towering firs and pines here, up around 4000-5000 ft.

    1. We have an Oregon grape 'holly' in a shade garden where I work. I have yet to pay attention to the 'grapes' though it certainly has outstanding yellow flowers in spring.

      Thanks, Lori!

    2. They are pucker up tart. I tasted one and that was enough for me. :)

  8. When my children were growing up, I hung the clothes in the backyard on a clothes line - no dryer for us. That was a lot of diapers, sheets, clothes, and towels with my husband and I and our 5 kiddies. We had a black cherry tree in the yard. For years the birds enjoyed those cherries and showed their appreciation for us allowing the tree to remain in the yard by depositing their "thank yous" on the fresh, clean clothes. Bummer! Finally, we removed the tree. :)

    Then we had a couple of plum trees in the yard. They had small (like the size of a large cherry) and red. I would gather what I could and make some plum jam. We loved that jam, and no it sometimes didn't set well as I was not a very good jam maker. Finally, those trees became a pest and had pests infest them, so they were also removed. I hated that because that jam was tasty and we couldn't get it in the stores.

    Loved your write up on the various plants.

    1. Ah, yes. I still have that happen in my current, tiny yard, because I do not use a dryer unless forced to. Nothing like having to re wash sheets--and hurry to do it, to get the stain out!

      Too bad about the plum trees. Thank you Vera-- great to hear of your successes (or not) with the jam but I recall my kids eating runny jam just as well as thick jam!

  9. When I travel to Amish country, I enjoy tasting and purchasing many different jellies and jams. My latest favorite is blackberry jam. Yum.

    I'd love to try jams made of these fruits.

    1. I do look for commercial blackberry jam because it is such a treat! In NY state, more and more of the large farms that have't gone completely commercial are being purchased by Amish and Mennonite families. They know how to use every part of agriculture and husbandry to their benefit and financial success while living quite simply. I do get to see many of those jam combinations here in upstate NY as well.

      Today, I just had fresh strawberry jam made on Thursday out of perfectly ripe local fruit. Oh my gosh. So good!
      I'll think of you when I look at those less common jams in the farm markets.

  10. That was a very fun and informative post,Debra.

    I love boysenberries but they are not grown around the mid Atlantic region. They are a cross between a European Raspberry, a Common Blackberry and a Loganberry.

    1. "I'm a citizen for Boysenberry Jam Fan"

      Never hear that fruit without thinking of a Simon and Garfunkel song! :)

      I wonder what they prefer because I don't hear a thing about them either, here in the northeast but someone must be growing them!

      Thanks for your comment, Janet!

    2. I used to be able to get it in Northern VA, but since I've moved to Southeastern VA I had to send away to Knotts Berry Farm.They sell it by the case so I'm fixed for life.


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