Let me tell you a story. The Chinese gooseberry, Actinidia deliciosa, a perennial vine native to eastern Asia, was grown as an ornamental for centuries. Even though it produced a fruit, few people consumed it and it was never found in the market. A few decades ago some enterprising New Zealanders decided to take the Chinese gooseberry commercial. They changed its name and came up with a marketing campaign. Today, kiwi is popular all over the world.
There are thousands of fruits around the world that are seldom or never found in commerce. Of these, dozens – perhaps hundreds – are well suited to backyard culture and home use. Some of these could become commercially popular if more people knew about them. One example is Actinidia arguta, the hardy kiwi. Hardy kiwi fruit is a smaller (about the size of a grape), sweeter, and more flavorful relative of the fuzzy kiwi found in stores. Its smooth skin does not need to be peeled. The vine is vigorous to the point of being rampant, requiring a very sturdy trellis to support the fruit load of up to 200 pounds per vine. They come in male and female; males produce no fruit, but are required for fruit production on females.
Another little known fruit with potential is the goumi, Eleagnus multiflora. This small tree or large shrub is a non-invasive relative of the invasive pests autumn olive and Russian olive. The potentially heavy crops are sweet-tart and cherry like in size and flavor, but without the pest and disease problems associated withcherry production. It is hardy through zone 5.
Che, Cudrania tricuspidata, sometimes called “melon berry” or “silk thorn” is a Chinese relative of our native Osage orange. Che fruit resembles Osage orange, but is only 1” – 2” in diameter and deep red when ripe. A more important distinction is that while t
he larger Osage orange is inedible, the fruit of the che is chewy but delicious. The flavor is said to resemble a mix of mulberry and fig, both of which are related to che. Though it usually only reaches the size of a large shrub or small tree, che can produce up to 400 pounds of fruit. The long growing season required to ripen the fruit limits the production to zone 5b and south. Development of earlier ripening cultivars could potentially extend its range northward. Like the kiwi, che comes in male and female, but unlike kiwi, some female che will bear seedless fruit without a male nearby.
The Cornelian cherry Cornus mas, is not a cherry at all, but a type of dogwood native to Europe and Asia. Like the goumi, it can produce very large crops of bright red, sweet-tart fruits on
a large shrub. The fruits are similar in size and flavor to pie cherries. Also like the goumi, it seems to be unbothered by pests and diseases. Even Japanese beetles seem to leave them alone. They are cold-hardy though zone 4.
A close relative of Cornelian cherry is the kousa dogwood. In early spring it is covered by large, showy white flowers like our own native flowering dogwood, but on this eastern Asia native the flowers are followed by edible red fruit. Kousa fruits are highly variable in size, flavor and quality. The best of these have a creamy texture and a sweet flavor reminiscent of paw paw. Unfortunately, kousa varieties are usually selected for ornamental qualities. One single cultivar, ‘Big Apple’, has been selected for large fruit size. So far, no kousa varieties have been selected for fruit flavor or quality.
Mayhaw is a term applied to hawthorns, Crataegers sp., that are highly prized for their fruits. In the strictest sense, mayhaw is C. aestivalis, a species native to the southeastern US. Mayhaw fruits are small, bright red, tart, but rich tasting. The shrub or small tree can tolerate a very wide range of conditions but is usually found on wet or even swampy sites. The mayhaw flowers and fruits very early for a hawthorn. In the Deep South, fruits ripen in May, hence the name. Devoted fans of the mayhaw claim it makes the very best jelly in the world.
More broadly, “mayhaw” may be applied to any of several other species of hawthorn with high quality fruit. Most of these are native to the northeastern US and their fruits ripen in the fall. Arnold hawthorn, C. arnoldiania and scarlet hawthorn, C. pedicellata are a couple of the better known hawthorns with commercial potential.
Medlar is a relative of hawthorns, apples and pears. The fruit of this Eurasian shrub or small tree was one of the most commercially important in Europe during the Middle Ages, but has since fallen into obscurity. The mature fruit is brown, hard, 1” – 2” in diameter, and somewhat resembles a small apple or pear, but with a very large calyx or “blossom end”. This characteristic gave rise to the fruit’s old common name “open arse.” Mature fruit are too hard and astringent to eat. They must first go through a process of over-ripening called “bletting.” When they reach the point of becoming mushy, fully bletted medlars take on a flavor and consistency of applesauce spiced with cinnamon. To eat the fruit you bite a hole in the tough skin and suck the pulp, using your teeth to strain out the large, hard seeds. It is no wonder the fruit has fallen out of favor, and it is not grown commercially anywhere in the world today. Where i
s the commercial potential? Certainly it is not with the general public. On the other hand, even in isolated rural areas you can find groups of people who will spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to dress up in Medieval costumes to attend “Madrigal Dinners” or “Renaissance Faires”. Just imagine what you could charge if you were the only supplier of authentic bletted medlar fruit to su
ch an event! – Tom