There’s no need to choose between a beautiful landscape and one that produces food for you and your family! There are many options for fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs, and even vegetables that are as ornamental as any traditionally grown for their appearance. This year on phigblog I’m going to feature a different all-star edible ornamental each month, starting with trees and working my way down to annuals.
TOP FIVE ALL-STAR EDIBLE ORNAMENTAL TREES:
Although all fruit trees are attractive in bloom and when loaded with ripe fruit, the following trees would stand out for their ornamental qualities even without regard for the delicious fruit they provide:
1. JUNEBERRY (Amelanchier spp)
Also known as serviceberry, shadblow, and saskatoon, this native tree wins my top prize due to its multiple seasons of beauty. In fact, juneberries are very common in the landscape trade (usually sold as serviceberries) because of their aesthetic qualities and general adaptability. It is their excellent fruit that is more commonly overlooked.
There are multiple species with slight variations, but all share the same basic characteristics. Juneberries start the spring off with a fine display of white flowers covering the tree in April before the leaves emerge. This is followed by the berries, which mature from pink to dark purple in June (hence the preferred name). The berries are generally fairly prolific and taste a lot like blueberries, with small seeds that add a hint of almond. I find their flavor best when they’re transitioning from red to purple, before they’ve fully darkened. They’re great for fresh eating and make excellent pies and preserves. Birds also love them, so you may have some competition. The fact that the fruit is small and also popular with birds (fruit rarely survives long enough to drop) makes Juneberries one of the few advisable fruits for street tree plantings. June is a joyful time in my West Philly neighborhood for me and a few other Juneberry enthusiasts, as walking to the trolley stop always includes browsing on handfuls of delectable berries along the way.
Through the summer, the leaves of the juneberry retain a rich, bluish green hue. These mature to a dependable and sometimes spectacular fall color, ranging from yellow to orange to brick red depending on species and cultivar. The smooth grey bark is even a plus for winter interest. The growth habit tends to be multi-stemmed and sometimes suckering, but juneberries can also be trained to a single trunk with consistent pruning. Most commonly sold species and cultivars grow in the 15 to 25 foot range, but a few smaller shrub types (A. alnifolia, etc) only get 6 to 8 feet in height. All are fairly adaptable to soil types and tolerant of part shade.
2. CORNELIAN CHERRY (Cornus mas)
Not in fact a true cherry, this outstanding edible ornamental is actually a member of the dogwood family. Cornelian Cherry stands out for its remarkable early bloom, often covered with stunning yellow flowers in March or even February. Blooming weeks before Forsythia, this harbinger of spring fortells a season of fruit as well as beauty!
The summer or early fall fruit resembles a tart cherry in flavor, although it does have its own distinctive taste component as well. There are both red and yellow fruited varieties and the fruit itself is quite attractive on the tree. Flavor often improves if left on the tree longer or left to ripen for a couple days off the tree. Cornelian Cherry has been culvitated for thousands of years in Europe and the Caucasus. In addition to fresh consumption, they have been dried, juiced, pickled, and otherwise processed into jellies, liqueurs, serbets, pies, syrups, and more.
Cornelian Cherry is very easy to grow, having none of the pest or disease problems that effect true cherries. They are adaptable to a variety of soils and will grow happily and even produce fruit in partial shade. Trees can reach twenty or more feet in height, but can be kept smaller with some pruning. The natural habit is multi-stemmed and upright, although it can be trained to a single trunk and will move towards a more spreading form with age or shade. In addition to its spectacular bloom and colorful fruit, Cornelian Cherry features attractive dogwood-like foliage that sometimes turns a decent red in fall. Even in winter, the flaky bark provides some interest.
3. Medlar (Mespilus germanica)
I first experienced the beauty of this old European fruit tree on a stroll through a botanic garden in Florence, Italy before my brother’s wedding. It was spring and the tree was in bloom, the white flowers resembling those of an old-fashioned single rose. This made enough of an impression, along with the tree’s relative obscurity and intriguing descriptions of its fruit, that I have since planted a Medlar in both my yard and my brother’s yard.
The rose-like flowers are further enhanced by their contrast to dark green leaves, but the Medlar also has other attractive features. Fall color can range from yellow to various shades of orange, red, and purple, usually with multiple colors on the tree and even on individual leaves at the same time. The fruit itself is not particularly handsome but does turn a fair bronze color and will hang on the tree even after the leaves have fallen, creating late fall and winter interest. In fact, for this reason Medlars are one of the best candidates for fruiting street trees (along with cherries and juneberries) as they are unlikely to make any mess.
I must concede here that I have yet to taste the Medlar fruit, although I expect to have some from my tree to sample this fall. Catalogs describe the flavor as that of spiced apple sauce with the texture of a baked apple when fully ripened. The 1 to 2 inch spherical fruit are often harvested while still hard in late fall and then bletted (stored until they soften) for a couple weeks. It is also possible to leave the fruit on the tree until it softens, although this can result in a somewhat drier texture. Regardless, it is the soft sweet interior flesh that is eaten, not the outer skin or seeds. Medlars can also be processed into jams, fruit leathers, and pies. The former popularity of this now obscure fruit can be witnessed in frequent appearances Medieval European art and writings.
The Medlar is a small tree, generally reaching no more than 10 to 12 feet in height, with often picturesque habit. The tree is easy to grow and long-lived, with few pest or disease problems and minimal need for annual pruning. Medlars are also quite adaptable to shade, although as with any fruit the quantity of production is greater in full sun. There are a handful of named cultivars that vary primarily in the size of the fruit and somewhat in growth habit and flavor. Medlar trees can be ordered from various specialty nurseries (like raintreenursery.com or onegreenworld.com) as bareroots in the spring. You are highly unlikely to find this old-fashioned, under-appreciated edible ornamental in the local nursery trade!
4. Paw Paw (Asimina triloba)
This remarkable fruit tree instantly adds a tropical feeling to your yard! Although native from Texas up to New York and Nebraska, the Paw Paw is closely related to such tropical cousins the Custard Apple, Cherimoya, and Sweetsop. The fruit itself is unique for its northerly environs, up to 6″ long and mango-like in form. It matures from green to yellow-brown in late summer and the ripe fruit is usually split down the middle and eaten with a spoon. The soft flesh of the Paw Paw is reminiscent of banana custard, a real treat for a northern orchardist! Although the fruit doesn’t have a long shelf life (the primary reason why most Americans aren’t familiar with this wonderful American fruit), it can also be made into pies or other baked goods. Wild pawpaws can be somewhat variable in flavor and texture quality, but a lot of breeding work has been done in recent years and many improved named varieties are now available from specialist nurseries.
The primary ornamental feature of the Paw Paw is its large, lush, drooping leaves that are so unusual for a plant native to northern woods. The lance-shaped leaves can be a foot long and remain deep-green all summer before shifting to an often spectacular golden yellow in the fall. The tree tends towards conical in form and usually will reach 15 to 20 feet in height. Its natural habit is also to send up suckers from its root system, eventually resulting in a wide thicket if left to its devices. The Paw Paw also has fascinating if not especially ornamental flowers in late spring. The flowers can be two inches across and transition from green to a deep reddish purple, but because they hang downwards are not particularly noticeable except up close. Paw paw flowers are also somewhat malodorous, as they are intended to attract certain beetles and carrion flies rather than the bees that pollinate most fruit trees. Because these unusual pollinators aren’t always common, hand-pollinating from one tree to another with a paintbrush can greatly boost fruit set.
Paw paws are generally very easy to grow and have little or no pest or disease problems of note. They also require little in the way of annual pruning other than cutting back suckers if a more tidy form is desired. What’s more, they almost entirely deer proof! In the wild, pawpaws are generally found as understory trees in woodland riverbottoms. They do like some shade while young and will successfully fruit in shade, but as with most fruiting plants they are most productive in full sun. They also prefer rich moist soils, but are actually much more adaptable to a wide range of conditions than many assume. Pawpaws are also taprooted, so don’t transplant well and generally need to be planted as small container plants. Two different varieties are required for pollination.
5. ASIAN PEAR (Pyrus pyrifolia, ussuriensis, and x bretschneideri)
Asian Pears have a wide range of seasonal attributes that make them one of the most beautiful of fruit trees. In spring they are covered with large clusters of attractive white flowers. The leaves unfold to a deep glossy green, wider and larger than those of European Pears. In summer, the large round fruit add additional interest, ranging from russet brown to yellow in coloration. Asian Pears can be stunning in fall, with leaves maturing to a wide range of colors from yellow to orange to red to purple, sometimes all on the same tree. Even winter can be a season of interest, with older trees displaying picturesque form.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the fruit of an Asian Pear is a delightful and surprising combination of crunchy and juicy. Unlike European Pears, the fruit ripens on the tree. Because they retain their firmness when ripe, the primary means of determining maturity are coloration and smell. There are hundreds of named varieties of Asian Pears originating primarily from Japan and China, varying in size, color, and flavor. Two varieties in close proximity are required for successful fruiting (consult a pollination chart for compatibility), although one variety ‘Shinseiki’ is partially self-fertile. There are several possible rootstock types for Asian Pears ranging from standard (30′ tall) to semi-dwarf (15′) to dwarf (8′). Asian Pears are very long lived (decades if not centuries) and can produce hundreds of pounds of fruit when mature.
In my experience with the Philadelphia Orchard Project, I’ve found Asian Pears to be the easiest to grow of the common fruit trees. They seem to suffer little in terms of pest and disease problems, especially in comparison to apples and peaches. Fireblight can be a serious problem for Asian Pears and needs to be pruned out at the first sign of infection. There are also a few fireblight resistant cultivars, including ‘Shinko’, ‘Seuri’, and ‘Korean Giant’. As with all the common fruit trees, annual winter pruning is necessary to create and maintain the healthiest and most productive trees. Training branches to more horizontal forms from their natural vertical habit is also strongly recommended.
NOTE: Although these five fruit trees made my top edible ornamentals list, I would like to re-emphasize that most fruit trees have attractive qualities. The stone fruits (peaches, plums, cherries, and apricots) are all stunning during spring bloom. Pome fruits (apples, pears, and quinces) all have attractive flowers and handsome fruit. Their obscure relative the Shipova also has wonderful downy grey-green leaves. Hawthorns and crab apples are commonly planted as ornamentals and if their fruit quality was a little greater, they may have pushed into my top five with their multiple seasons of beauty. Persimmons have lovely glossy green leaves, stunning orange fruit, and interesting bark in winter. Anyone interested in reading about these and edible landscaping in general should read the works of Lee Reich (Landscaping with Fruit, Grow Fruit Naturally, Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden).