Jane Says: You Can Grow Your Own Superfruits
Every few months, another “superfruit”—so called because of its high levels of antioxidants and other good stuff—hits the news. A surprising number of these fruits are easy to grow in your garden or even on your deck in containers, giving you access to some of the healthiest foods on the planet—even if they’re not the magic bullets their marketers make them out to be. For more about superfruits, check out last week’s column. And if you find it hard to wrap your head around the meaning of the term antioxidants, I’ve got you covered (really covered).
Aronia (chokeberry; Photinia melanocarpa, Aronia melanocarpa): This close relative of the apple (it’s a pome, not a berry, botanically speaking) is native to eastern North America, and its common name should clue you in to its tart flavor. There’s a red variety, but what’s garnered attention in the superfruit world is the black chokeberry; high in vitamin C, it also has an unusually high level of the plant pigments called anthocyanins—among the highest measured in plants thus far. According to the Missouri Botanical Garden (a treasure trove of information for home and professional gardeners alike), aronia has a wide tolerance for various soil types and is easily grown in full sun to partial shade; it can withstand wet conditions too. Although it takes a few years to reach full productivity, you should be able to harvest a couple of pounds of berries after two years. You’ll find some recommended varieties and nurseries at Everhart Horticulture Consulting’s Aronia in America (who knew?) website, which also points out that the word “chokeberry” can easily be misread or misheard as “chokecherry,” a distantly related but very different plant.
Aronia makes a great informal hedge: large and shrubby, it can reach a height of four to eight feet and spread a good 10 feet. The leaves, which are glossy and green during the summer, turn red and orange in the autumn, when the dark-purple berries ripen. Unlike many superfruits, aronia berries can be eaten whole and raw; they’re at their most flavorful after a frost. Aronia can also be found at some stores and online (Superberries is one brand I’m familiar with); the berries are usually sold flash-frozen at peak harvest. Use them like you would blueberries—in a smoothie, yogurt, oatmeal, muffins, or pancakes, or cooked into a jam, chutney, or sauce.
Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea): A 2013 study in the Journal of Food Science found that bright-red buffaloberries, historically an important food source for Native Americans of the Great Plains, contain large amounts of lycopene and a related acidic compound, methyl-lycopenoate, both important antioxidants. Buffaloberries have enough sugar to taste delicious whether fresh or dried; they can be tart, but turn sweet after a frost. Buffaloberry shrubs, which are thorny, tough, cold-hardy, and thrive in poor soil, can be ordered from a number of nurseries online, including Schumacher’s, in Heron Lake, Minn. “It is a medium to tall shrub for conservation windbreaks and wildlife,” its website notes. “If planted in a seasonally flooded spot in a thicket it is an ideal wildlife plant, and a significant nitrogen source for the habitat.”
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra): Although this fruit was long appreciated as a source of food and medicine, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew notes that “the elder was once reviled as the tree from which Judas Iscariot supposedly hanged himself. However, since elder is not native to the Palestine region, this story is probably untrue.” Phew. Just the other day I noticed zinc-elderberry lozenges in a natural foods store, and sure enough, according to Cornell, it’s replacing echinacea as a cold and flu nutraceutical. Elderberries, which are rich in vitamin C, “contain more phosphorus and potassium than any other temperate fruit crop.” Like other dark-colored fruits, they also contain lots of anthocyanins. They’re a good source of vitamins B1, B2, and B6 and contain the anti-inflammatory agents ursolic and oleanolic acids.
Elderberries are easy to grow and are wonderful in landscape plantings; according to Cornell, they prefer rich, moist, well-draining soil, "but will tolerate a wide range of soil texture, fertility, and acidity," and are easy to propagate from hardwood cuttings. (In the arid west, Mexican elderberry, Sambucus mexicana, grows wild in far drier areas, and bears similar fruit.) They provide a harvest from July through September in most parts of the U.S. Fresh elderberries are very tart, so they’re usually cooked and used in jellies, jams, pies, flavored waters (an elderberry syrup is great with seltzer), flavored vinegars, teas, and, of course, wine. WineMaker magazine has a basic recipe for elderberry wine, along with tips for how to harvest the fruit. Look for elderberry plants at your local nursery or online sources such as Willis Orchards or Stark Bro’s.
Gac (Baby Jackfruit, Spiny Bitter Gourd, Sweet Gourd, Cochinchin Gourd; Momordica cochinchinensis): Secretly, we all long for some exotica in our gardens, something to make people stop and say, “What the hell is that?” Enter gac, a Southeast Asian vining fruit that’s about the size of an elongated cantaloupe. Dark orange when ripe, it is chock-full of lycopene and beta-carotene. According to seedman.com (Seeds From Around the World), the fruit is most commonly prepared as a dish called xôi gac, in which the aril and seeds of the fruit are cooked in glutinous rice, imparting both their color and mild, melonlike flavor. “Because it has a relatively short harvest season (harvest normally starts about 8 months after planting, harvest only lasts for 2 months ), making it less abundant than other foods, gac is typically served at ceremonial or festive occasions in Vietnam.” More recently, the website notes, “the fruit has begun to be marketed outside of Asia in the form of juice dietary supplements because of its allegedly high phytonutrient content.” Give me xôi gac any day. Find seeds and plants at Gac-Seeds.com, and seeds at Richter’s and seedman.com.
Goji berries (wolfberry; Lycium barbarum): These berries, which contain whopping amounts of vitamin C and other antioxidants, come from a hardy shrub that’s native to China, and grows in Mongolia, Tibet, and Nepal as well; it was also being cultivated as an ornamental plant in the Royal Gardens of St James's Palace, London, in the 17th century. Extremely hardy, quick-growing (up to 10 feet in height), drought-tolerant, and resilient when hard pruned, the shrub makes a terrific hedge and is also great for topiary. It also flourishes in almost any type of soil, even by the ocean. Because it has an extensive root system, it helps control erosion on banks. Here are some handy tips for growing.
“Goji” is a relatively recent name for the plant; it’s derived from its Chinese name, níngxià gǒuqǐ. Besides wolfberry, according to the Royal Horticultural Society, other aliases include Chinese box thorn, barbary box thorn, barbary wolfberry, common matrimony vine, and (my favorite) vicar's tea party. Goji’s flavor is a little bit cherry, a little bit raisin, a little bit licorice. The berries can be dried (most that you buy are dried), eaten raw, tossed into soups and other savory dishes toward the end of cooking, or brewed into a tea. Like the pichuberry (you can get the rundown in last week’s column), the goji is a member of the nightshade family (Solanceae). Look for goji plants at online sources such as Garden Harvest Supply and Gurney’s.
Saskatoon berry (Pacific or western serviceberry, Juneberry, shadbush; Amelanchier alnifolia): Native to western North America, the saskatoon berry (the Canadian city was named for the fruit, not the other way around) was an ingredient in the Native American food pemmican, and the stems were made into arrow shafts. The fruit resembles the blueberry in size, flavor, and texture, but is far more adaptable, which is why its growth range stretches from Alaska, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories (some varieties are cold-hardy to near –60°F) all the way to California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Botanically speaking, saskatoon fruit is not a true berry, but a pome, like aronia; not only is it packed with antioxidants, but it also contains more protein and fiber than most fruits. According to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Food Science, saskatoons appear to be an excellent source of manganese, magnesium, and iron, and a relatively good source of calcium, potassium, copper, and carotene.
Commercial production of saskatoons is pretty much limited to Canada, and the industry has become the second largest commercial fruit crop on the Canadian Prairies, second only to strawberries. Demand exceeds supply, though, which is why you might be better off growing your own. Saskatoons are delicious fresh, in pies and desserts, canned, frozen, or made into wine, juice, or preserves. In the garden, the saskatoon yields large, fragrant white flowers in the spring followed by juicy, plump berries in late June or July, and brilliant, bright-orange foliage in the fall. Tall (up to 15 or 20 feet) and upright, it can be used as a hedge or ornamental specimen shrub. Saskatoon plants are available from online sources such as the Saskatoon Farm Catalogue, Gurney’s, and Saskatoon Michigan.