Sunday, April 15, 2012

Native Fruits in Georgia

Now that the bees have pollinated my blueberries, I can see the little berries forming.  I love having fresh blueberries in June and July, and I love reminding people that they are native to Georgia.  Of course the plants we purchase for cultivation have been bred to have larger fruits, but their ancestors grew up in the South and their wild cousins still live in the woods around us.  

Vaccinium pallidum

These days more and more people are interested in growing their own food so I thought I’d mention some of the native plants that have edible fruit.  Now I’m sure that some people will say there are more edibles than I am listing.  People can eat all sorts of things!  These are the more commonly available plants that are considered “edible”.  I have personally eaten the fruit of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) - and it was delicious - but it’s not a plant that I think people grow as food.

Native shrubs that bear fruit in sufficient quantity include blueberry (Vaccinium), huckleberry (Gaylussacia), elderberry (Sambucus), black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis), and blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis).  Of all these, blueberry is certainly the most commonly available and can usually found at most nurseries in the springtime.

Blueberries benefit from cross-pollination from other blueberries, especially blueberries that are not identical clones.  Therefore if you are buying cultivars, look to buy at least one that is not the same.  You also want to buy plants that bloom at the same time so that cross-pollination can work.  Since most reputable nurseries know this, they will usually stock different cultivars in early, mid and late season categories.  For example, 'Climax' and 'Premier' are both early season cultivars.  An excellent publication on growing blueberries at home is available from UGA here.  I have had very good luck with mid season cultivars 'Tifblue' and others (yes, the tag fell off those "others", but they get the job done).   In the northern part of the state we grow "rabbiteye" blueberries; the UGA publication also talks about the more southern varieties.

Blueberries also turn a beautiful red color in the fall and are not bothered by deer as far as I can tell.  They do like full sun (6 or more hours) and adequate moisture, especially while the fruit is developing.

Gaylussacia baccata
Huckleberries are probably a little harder to find and have not been cultivated as much for home use.  Very similar looking to lowbush blueberries, they tend to be a colonial shrub (spreading underground) but very tolerant of drier soils.  We recently discovered black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) on a site being developed and have been much charmed with the small red flowers and resin-dotted leaves.  I look forward to tasting the fruit.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis) is a longtime favorite for pies, jams and wine as well as extracts for medicinal purposes.  The plant is large and rambunctious - give it plenty of sun and space.  If you have an area that is a little moist, so much the better.  I love to see this blooming on low roadsides, growing side by side with thorny briars, the huge flower heads supporting all manner of pollinators.  Each tiny flower in the inflorescence turns into a small purple berry.

Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis
Elderberry fruit
Karan A. Rawlins, University of Georgia,

Subshrubs in the genus Rubus give us black raspberries and blackberries.  These will need some space as well and you must leave the old canes intact as only the second year canes (known as floricanes) will flower and bear fruit.

Trees that bear fruit include pawpaw (Asimina triloba), mayhaw hawthorn (Crataegus aestivalis), serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), plum (Prunus americana or Prunus angustifolia) , crabapple (Malus angustifolia), and mulberry (Morus rubra).

Pawpaw is a beautiful small tree with long, tropical-looking leaves, unusual maroon flowers and even more unusual fruit. It is a member of the Annonaceae family which is the "custard-apple" family.  Who even knew there was a custard-apple family?  I have heard that the fruit is delicious.  Like blueberries, the flowers benefit from cross pollination so one is encouraged to have at least two.  I have three and continue to hope that one day I'll see fruit.

Asimina triloba

Pawpaw fruit
Troy Evans, Great Smoky Mountains
National Park,

There are many species of hawthorns that are indigenous to Georgia but one in particular has been cultivated and celebrated for its fruit - the one called "mayhaw", Crataegus aestivalis.  Festivals celebrating this fruit are scattered throughout the southeast.  It is also a beautiful spring-flowering tree.  Below is a picture of Crataegus triflora to give you an idea of hawthorn blooms in general.

Mayhaw fruit
Photo by Ron Lance
Crataegus triflora

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) is another tree long appreciated for it's fruit.  Several species grow throughout Georgia and are becoming more available in nurseries as people have learned to appreciate them for supporting birds.  Long before that, however, people gathered these berries for pies and fresh eating - they are good right off the tree if you can get to them before the birds.

Amelanchier arborea

Amelachier alnifolia
Mary Ellen (Mel) Harte,

I have been on a quest for native plums for some time.  I finally did get an American plum (Prunus americana) several years ago but it has not flowered yet.  I found a healthy roadside stand of Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia ) this year and photographed the flowers.  I plan to return in a month or two to check for fruit to harvest either for eating or growing.

Prunus angustifolia

We don't have any native apple trees in the US but we do have Crabapple (Malus angustifolia).  Like serviceberries, plums, and hawthorns, it is a member of the Rosaceae family and the scent of the flower is unmistakeably rose-like. However, the fruit, larger than ornamental crabapples but smaller than apples, is quite tart.  You might want some sugar in that jelly.

Crabapple (not sure which one!)

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a very modest looking medium sized tree.  Blink and you will miss the tiny blooms that hang underneath the leaves.  Only female trees bear fruit so if you are purchasing one for fruit, be sure to get at least one known female.  I have the trees throughout my yard - including a recent batch of first year seedlings courtesy of some possum pooping his way through, I guess.  Native persimmons are small and orange - and quite tart; you should wait until they are naturally ready to fall before plucking them.

Persimmon fruit persists after the leaves have gone

Red mulberry (Morus rubra) is the native mulberry found throughout the state, from the Ridge and Valley to the Coastal Plain.  Unfortunately the non-native white mulberry is too.  The two look very similar, but there are some differences in the leaves.  The leaf of the non-native white mulberry is shiny on top and smooth underneath.  The native red mulberry has dull leaves that are lightly hairy underneath.  By all reports, the fruit of the red mulberry is tastier than the non-native one!

Finally you might considering growing some of our native grapes.  There are several that are indigenous to Georgia - muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) is a familiar one.  They are sweet and tasty when plucked right from the vine, but they are often too high to reach.  Fox grape (Vitis labrusca) and summer grape (Vitis aestivalis) are two of the others in my area.

So there you have it.  Growing native plants that also provide you with a bit of food might be a fun project to explore if you are into edibles.  I have certainly enjoyed having my own blueberries.


  1. A fantastic post. I learned a lot. I initially think of native plant berries as feeding birds, not me.

  2. "WE don't have any native apple trees in the U.S." Really?? I would have lost all my money on that one! But, you are Ellen, so it must be the case.

  3. Awesome post! I have been wanting to put some paw paw trees in as host to the zebra swallowtail but knowing the fruit is tasty is also appealing. I just put in a Serviceberry last fall and I look forward to seeing the fruit.

  4. Thanks, you've given me some great ideas...we already have persimmon, crabapple, and serviceberry, and they're doing great, but our blueberries are struggling. Not enough moisture maybe. We'll have to try huckleberry or black raspberry.

  5. I just tried Persimmon fruit recently, very tasty. I love serviceberries too but the birds often beat me to them. Great post Ellen.

  6. I nominated your blog for The Versatile Blogger award. Here’s some information:

  7. I have two persimmon trees in my yard, and one at the house I built and later sold, on the same property. The info on native plums is disappointing. When I was a child, we played in a plum orchard, stained our pockets with the fruit, and got one or two stomach aches, but the fruit was so sweet. I'm going back to see if there are any left.