Berry Interesting

By Ellen Zachos

Sure, I love berries. They're delicious. But is that enough? Being a demanding gardener, I expect more from my fruit than just great taste. Anything I grow must feed both body and soul.

You can't find a more perfect ornamental fruit producer than Amelanchier, aka Juneberry, serviceberry, and saskatoon. While all species of Amelanchier produce edible berries, A. alnifolia, commonly known as saskatoon, offers varieties that have been selected specifically for good fruit production, including 'Pembina', Regent', Smoky' and 'Thiessen'. Plants are self-fertile, so you only need one for fruit production, with the exception of white-fruited varieties like 'Paleface', which need a different variety nearby for cross pollination. These adaptable trees or large shrubs can be grown in containers and in the ground, tolerate full sun to part shade, and aren't picky about soil nutrition. They're covered in dainty white flowers in spring, fabulous orange foliage in fall, and in late May to early June -- such delicious fruit! Slightly larger than a blueberry, serviceberries (pictured) are plump and juicy eaten raw. They make great jams, jellies, pies - and yes, wine. Ask me how I know.

Lindera benzoin, commonly called spicebush, is a native shrub that produces delicate yellow flowers in spring and bright yellow foliage in fall. It grows best in fertile, moist soils and part shade. Red berries ripen just as the leaves start to turn. This isn't a berry you munch out of hand. Grind up the berries to use as a spice that combines equally well with both sweet (apple cobbler, pear pie) and savory (marinades for chicken and pork). You can use the fruit fresh, but I like to dry them for longer storage.

Mahonia (Oregon grape) is a popular ornamental shrub, and rightly so. This plant truly has four seasons of interest: blue-green, broadleaf evergreen foliage, candelabras of bright yellow flowers in early spring followed by bunches of grape-like fruit in summer. Be sure to give it some protection from winter winds. Like all broadleaf evergreens, Mahonia is prone to wind burn in late winter. Before you pop one of those fruits into your mouth, beware! They are SUPER SOUR and have sizeable seeds. My favorite ways to use them are in jelly (they have lots of natural pectin) and fruit leather. In a shallow pan, combine equal parts Oregon grapes with sweeter fruit(s) like mulberries, blueberries, raspberries, just barely covering the fruit with water. Cook until the fruit it soft enough to strain or run through a food mill, then taste the fruit and decide if it needs sweetening. If it does, return the pulp to the pan and add sugar or honey to taste. If you have a dehydrator, spread a layer of pulp 1/8 inch thick on a fruit leather sheet and dry for 8-12 hours. If you don't have a dehydrator, place a sheet of parchment paper on a cookie sheet and spread a layer of fruit pulp 1/8 inch thick. Dehydrate in the oven at 125F until the leather is dry and flexible.

Cornus mas or cornelian cherry isn't a cherry, it's a dogwood! It's a lovely, mid-sized tree that would be worth growing for its good looks alone. Its flowers are much smaller than those of C. florida or C. kousa...but what it lacks in showy bracts it makes up for in flavorful fruit. In mid-September you'll notice clusters of large, shiny fruit nestled into the leaves like giant clip-on earrings. When the fruit is soft and has darkened to a deep red, it's ready to pick. Like Oregon grapes, cornelian cherries are wicked sour and have large seeds. This fruit has more natural pectin than any other I know. When you're making cornelian cherry jelly it sets almost before you start testing. Cornelian cherry is a traditional flavoring in Middle Eastern cooking. The juice makes a tart, refreshing sorbet and it's also used to flavor and color savory rice dishes.

Eleagnus multiflora (aka gumi) is related to the more invasive E. umbellata (sweet autumn olive, silverberry). Both produce tart red fruit and tolerate poor soils and occasional drought. Gumi fruit is larger than silverberry, which is good because considering the aggressive nature of silverberry I can't recommend planting it in all locations. (Check with your county Extension Office to see if it's on the invasive list where you live.) While gumi fruit is tart, it sweetens up enough to make a juicy fresh nibble in the garden. Use gumi juice instead of lemon juice (cup for cup) and you'll make the most delicious, gorgeous, meringue pie ever.

Don't get me wrong, I'd never pass up a fresh strawberry shortcake or a jar of homemade raspberry jam, but when it comes to growing berries at home I'll choose a multitasker every time. If you look good AND taste great…I've got a spot in the garden for you!

Ellen Zachos is the owner of Acme Plant Stuff (, a garden design, installation, and maintenance company in NYC specializing in rooftop gardens and indoor plants. She is the author of numerous magazine articles and six books and also blogs at Ellen is a Harvard graduate and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden; she lectures at garden shows and events across the country.

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