Even if the economy doesn’t drive us to foraging in the wild, there are some native fruits that are good to know, to eat and to grow at home.
Wild Plum, Prunus americana, is blooming all over Boulder and much of the Front Range as I write. It is easy to identify with its early spring clouds of white blossoms and waves of sweet perfume that carry across the yard or the ditch. It is quite happy in a ditch where it gets a little extra water, and is not at its best in very dry conditions where it will grow more as a shrub than a tree.
The 1” oval plums are yellow to red and when fully ripe are delicious. They are often used in jams and jellies. The suckering tree forms colonies that are wonderful for wildlife, if you can afford the space. Otherwise, weed out unwanted suckers with loppers or a shovel. The tree is often 10’-12’ high and if kept to a single trunk can look wonderfully ancient and bonsai-like. Our alkaline clay soils do not bother it.
Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia, is also called “Juneberry” and “Saskatoon” and was a favorite food of the American Indians. The seed-grown native species varies a lot and especially if grown dry can inspire the name “Blahberry”. It has been selected for better fruit and one of the best selections is “Regent”. The yields are high and the flavor is good, resembling a blueberry but with ten times more vitamin C. The fruit can be used like blueberries in jams, sauces and pies.
Whereas the straight species can grow to 4’-20’, “Regent” is 4’- 6’ tall. The foliage is shiny and beautiful, turning yellow to red in the fall, and the spring flowers are clean, white and elegant. Water once or twice a week for best fruit. As an ornamental, it will tolerate some dryness and is adapted to alkaline soil. Wildlife love the fruit in any condition.
Several species of Wild Strawberry grow in Colorado: Fragaria vesca, F. ovalis, F. americana and F. virginiana. All bear small delicious and redolent berries considered by many to be far superior to commercial hybrids and as good as the famed French Fraise de Bois. In the wild, there are never enough of these delicacies, but the volume can be increased in cultivation by working compost and an organic fertilizer into the soil, topdressing in fall or spring and by watering once a week deeply. Straw as a mulch holds moisture and keeps the berries clean.
Fragaria vesca and its selections do not produce runners and make a good edging plant. “Fort Laramie” was bred at the Cheyenne Station and is a well-adapted hybrid between F. vesca and the cultivated strawberry. It is very hardy and produces large sweet berries. Fragaria virginiana and F. Americana both make runners and therefore can be good groundcovers in sun or part shade. The white flowers are attractive as well.
Golden Currant, Ribes aureum, is a Colorado native and has small fruit that the birds love, but ‘Gwen’s Buffalo’ is a selection with better fruit. Scott Skogerboe, who is head propagator at Ft. Collins Wholesale Nursery, brought “Gwen’s” to Colorado from Oregon where it had been discovered, He says the black fruit is larger than the species, tear-drop shaped, sweet and delicious. The very fragrant, clove-scented showy yellow blooms appear in May, and in autumn the leaves turn a beautiful orange to red. It would be worth growing for the flowers and fall color alone. The shrub grows to 6’ tall and wide. A light pruning of 2”-4” after harvesting the fruit helps it to stand up under the weight of snow and fruit. In my experience it can tolerate low water conditions, but not complete drought. Full sun exposure is recommended, but it will tolerate drier conditions in part shade.
Another native currant, Ribes odoratum, has also been selected for improved fruit. The selection “Crandall” is almost identical to “Gwen’s Buffalo” with the same spicy clove fragrant yellow trumpets followed by black fruit. These ½”- ¾” round berries are sweet, tart and juicy, and can be eaten out of hand or in granola, muffins and jam. They are not only good tasting, but they are very prolific and have five times the vitamin C of oranges. In my opinion, “Crandall” is one of the best home fruit plants.
In the fall the leaves turn a colorful red, orange and yellow. A light pruning after fruiting is recommended to keep it upright and strong. Mulching and an application of organic fertilizer will improve fruit size and production. Because it is a native, it is well-adapted to Colorado conditions , but it will produce larger and more fruit if watered moderately during fruit set.
The Wild Grape, Vitis riparia or Riverbank Grape is common in Colorado and loved by wildlife. It is hardier than cultivated grapes (zone 2) and extremely vigorous, growing 20’-30’ into trees or scrambling over shrubs. If used in cultivation, it excels in rapidly covering an arbor, but undirected or unrestrained, it can quickly smother an area. The fruit is small and more tart than cultivated forms, and it takes a lot of grapes and a lot of cleaning to get enough for juice or a pie. However one of the best pies I ever had in my life was made from wild grapes. An added interest is the insignificant yellow flowers whose powerful sweet grapey fragrance can be detected at some distance from the vine. Also wildlife are very fond of the fruit and birds love to pull off the exfoliating bark to weave into their nests. Wild Grape performs best when watered moderately and in soil enriched with some organic matter.
In general, we could say that native fruits are wild and may need some training and cultivation for best fruit production, and to keep them from overtaking tamer varieties. However wild fruits can be very tasty and far more nutritious than cultivated varieties. They have evolved to have strong defense mechanisms and survival vitality and can therefore be rich in vitamins, enzymes and antioxidants. In addition to the edible values, these plants like living in Colorado and therefore are usually strong and healthy.
Copyright Mikl Brawner 2019