Explore Native Fruits
By Michael Brown | Oct 6, 2020
Photo by Adobe Stock/Maren Winter
Nothing succeeds like success.” This seems to qualify as the mantra for many of our growers and agricultural extension agents when it comes to berries and small fruit. The overwhelming attention and resources devoted to a small number of the most popular fruits and berries ends up perpetuating these crops.
I’m not saying farmers shouldn’t be growing strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. Obviously, people love to eat these healthful fruits. But by sidelining and neglecting other possibilities, farmers may be missing out on lucrative niche markets that can bring in additional income and attract new customers. A good number of these “new” crops are native species that’ll add to the array of crops available to local farmers. They’re frequently no- or low-spray and well-adapted to local conditions.
For the past 12 years, I’ve focused the activity of my small suburban farm on less common berries: gooseberry, red currant, haskap, jostaberry, elderberry, and aronia, among others. Recently, I’ve become interested in the potential of some less appreciated native plants. It’s been a real challenge to find these plants and to get growing and market information. Without such basic information, potential growers will be working in the dark as they consider adding these plants.
Most of the following fruits and berries are usually foraged from plants growing wild. While this fruit can be considered free for the taking on some public land, there are other considerations to take into account. Wild plants are usually not growing under ideal conditions. Fruit load may be modest, and access to the plants may be challenging, both in terms of travel time and physical barriers (such as poison ivy) near the plants. Plus, plants growing near easy access points (such as by the roadsides) may be exposed to harmful car emissions or chemical sprays.
By starting small and testing out these native species and the corresponding markets, growers should be able to profitably explore new opportunities, and bring their consumers new experiences and the chance to enjoy some of the bounty from plants that are growing all around us.
The two main species of sumac found in the U.S. are staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) and smooth sumac (R. glabra). Both are traditionally a foraged crop and seem to be grown commercially on a very limited basis. In fact, in several internet searches, I wasn’t able to find anyone currently growing sumac commercially.
Sumac. Photo by Adobe Stock/Elladoro
You don’t have much to work with regarding growing guides for sumac. The United States Department of Agriculture puts out a plant guide for both staghorn and smooth sumac, but it’s light on growing guidelines. Most of the literature seems to focus on their merits as landscape plants.
Syrian sumac (R. coriaria) is the sumac most associated with za’atar, a popular Middle Eastern spice blend made with sumac and a few other ingredients, including a culinary herb related to oregano that’s also called “za’atar.” However, this sumac is native to southern Europe and the Middle East, and will only grow in Zones 9 and 10.
Where to Find Sumac
Sumac isn’t generally available at commercial nurseries and garden centers. Check with nurseries that focus on native species. There are no improved sumac cultivars.
As a preliminary to my interest in sumac, I reached out to a number of my brewery customers. From this small unrepresentative sample, three out of five people were interested to try sumac in one of their brews.
Sumac can also be prepared as a spice to flavor food.
What Needs to be Done
• Identify the ideal growing conditions, flavor, and intensity of flavor of different species.
• Select for quality and ease of production.
• Engage in market research and information sharing, and craft awareness campaigns to bring sumac to the attention of potential growers.
Several types of wild plums grow across the U.S. They include American plum (Prunus americana); Chickasaw plum, or sand plum(P. angustifolia); wild goose plum(P. hortulana); beach plum(P. maritima); and Mexican plum(P. mexicana). The only wild plum used in commercial production is the beach plum.
While beach plum has received some attention from the farming and research community, other wild plums are still lagging far behind. All these plums have delicious fruit that’s prized for making jams and other foods and beverages.
Wild Plums. Photo by Adobe Stock/Wiert
Where to Find Wild Plums
Beach plum is available at some mail-order nurseries specializing in fruit and berry plants. Wild plums in general will be hard to find at most commercial nurseries and garden centers. Check out nurseries that focus on native plants. Raintree Nursery and Oikos Tree Crops advertise improved cultivars, though there doesn’t seem to be any independent assessment regarding their qualities. None of the other wild plums are available as improved cultivars.
My personal observations regarding supply and demand for beach plum are in line with the literature online. In short, the demand for beach plum far exceeds the supply.
According to the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station website, “Beach plums will be attractive primarily to customers wishing to make processed foods and drinks from them.” There’s no reason to expect anything different in terms of consumer demand for the other wild plums.
What Needs to be Done
• Select for superior plants that exhibit improved vigor; growth habit; and size, quality, and production of fruit.
• Expand education for the public and food industry regarding wild plums.
With the increasing popularity of elderberry (and elderflower) these past few years, a number of new local and regional varieties have been introduced. Growers are interested in plants offering vigorous growth, good production, and large berries. Interestingly, of all the elderberry varieties available today, none are the result of specific breeding programs. They’re all selected plants from the wild that have been trialed to confirm positive attributes and then clonally propagated.
Elderberry. Photo by Adobe Stock/M. Schuppich
Growers in the U.S. work almost exclusively with American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and European elderberry (S. nigra). Two other species of elderberry also grow in the U.S.: blue elderberry (S. caerulea) and red elderberry (S.racemosa). Very little work has been done with these species compared with S. canadensis and S. nigra.
Where to Find Elderberry
Elderberry should be available at some commercial nurseries and garden centers, though knowledge about the plant and selection will probably be limited. Elderberry is available at many mail-order nurseries specializing in fruits and berries. A number of improved varieties (selections from wild plants) are available, and there’s a good deal of information online regarding differences between them. The plants available at native plant nurseries will generally be seedlings. Though these are fine for wildlife plantings, get selected varieties if you’re mostly interested in berry production for yourself or to sell.
Elderberry has a wide variety of potential markets, both culinary and medicinal. Elderberry can be used in a range of beverages, including wine, beer, cider, and juice. It’s also popular for making jelly and other food preparations, such as ice cream.
There’s also a robust market for elderberry syrup, which may help alleviate cold and flu symptoms, according to some studies.
Fragrant elderflowers have a ready market at bars, restaurants, and food and beverage businesses. Nonfragrant elderflowers also have a market for herbal tea.
What Needs to be Done
• Develop more comprehensive studies looking at health attributes of elderberry across different cultivars, which may allow growers focused on the medicinal market to differentiate themselves.
• Identify vigorous cultivars that have intense flower fragrance, and perhaps different fragrances, for the elderflower market.
• Explore the potential of other native elderberry species, specifically blue and red
Michael Brown works as a full-time school librarian in central New Jersey. His small backyard farm, Pitspone Farm, specializes in berries and berry plants
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Learn about the history, uses, myths, and truths of elderberry in a prerecorded webinar with John Moody. This webinar is part of the Mother Earth News Fair Online. Learn more here.
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