Uncommon But Uncommonly Delicious

Some (Only) Like It Cooked

Before the black currant (Ribes nigrum) season totally winds down, I suggest you try to get a taste of the fresh berries. Do so if you’ve never tasted them. And do so even if you have tasted them and found them bad tasting.

Why taste them if you haven’t? Because if you end up liking them, they’re easy to grow and nutritious — super-rich in vitamin C (2 to 3 times as much as oranges) and other goodies.

Belaruskaja black currants

Belaruskaja black currants

Deer don’t particularly like the very aromatic stems and leaves, and birds — even my ducks — ignore the berries. They are among the few berries that thrive and bear well even in some shade. They have few insect or disease problems.

And the berries taste good, very good, some varieties better than others. My “currant” favorites are the varieties Belaruskaja and Titania, either of which I recommend tasting if you’ve previously had a bad gustatory experience with black currants.

Then again, black currants have a strong flavor. Not everyone has to like them. What Liberty Hyde Bailey, the “father of American horticulture,” wrote about apples in 1922 would apply equally well to kinds and varieties of fruits, including black currants: “Why do we need so many kinds of apples? Because there are so many folks. A person has a right to gratify his legitimate tastes.“

Then again — again — just about everybody likes black currants concocted into a jam, a pie, a syrup, or an alcoholic drink (as in casis). I like mine straight up, fresh in summer, frozen and defrosted in winter.

They Were Against the Law!!

You may have heard of some disease to which black currants, and red currants and gooseberries, are prone, and was responsible for their being illegal to grow. The disease is white pine blister rust, a fungal disease that needs two different plant hosts to survive. One host is white pine, a common forest tree. And the other is a susceptible species of Ribes, which includes currants and gooseberries.

White pine blister rust disease entered the U.S. from Europe in the early 20th century. Because white pine was such an important timber crop, a federal ban was enacted to control the disease that not only made it illegal to plant currants and gooseberries, but also sent crews scouring forests and gardens from which to rip plants out of the ground.

Alas, the ban was not very effective. Wild plants were everywhere; when conditions were suitable, disease spores could be carried hundreds of miles. And cultivated varieties of gooseberries and currants proved not to be very susceptible to the disease. The federal ban was lifted in the 1960s.

Black currants were definitely a culprit, but in the latter half of the 20th century, three varieties were bred in Canada that were immune to the disease. I grew one of them, the variety Consort, and thought it tasted good. Other people disagreed. 

A number of other varieties have since been developed that are resistant to the disease. The previously mentioned Belaruskaja and Titania are among them. I dug up my Consort plants years ago and put in Belaruskaja and Titania, and now have to share my berries.

Small Berry, Powerfully Good Flavor

I hope everyone else is enjoying at least some home-grown berries this time of year as much as I am. Berries generally are easy to grow and taste much, much, much better backyard grown than purchased because you can grow the best of them and pick them when dead ripe.

Perhaps the most perishable — and one of the most delicious — berry is the alpine strawberry. They’re a different species from common strawberries (Fragaria vesca rather than F. X ananassa).

White and red alpine strawberries

White and red alpine strawberries

They’re also quite small, with big ones about the size of a nickel. But they pack a lot of flavor and fragrance into that small package, and do so all summer long.

Problem is that birds eat the berries as soon as they’re just beginning to blush. If picked then, the flavor is akin to cotton soaked in lemon juice. Flavor and aroma don’t develop until they’re dead ripe.

So I grow WHITE alpine strawberries. Birds don’t see them and I can wait until they turn a creamy white color and the seeds darken.

3 pots of white alpine strawberries

Alpine strawberries also fruit well in pots

At that point of ripeness, the berries are very, very soft, not something that could be picked for later sale, let alone shipping. Everybody who has tastes them exclaims “wow,” or something similar.

(If you’re hungry for more growing and historical details, alpine strawberries and black currants each get a chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)


Out With The Old, In With The New

“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did,” wrote a Dr. Boteler about the strawberry (as quoted in Izaak Walton’s 17th century classic The Compleat Angler). I disagree. I also don’t like to crawl for my fruit. With that said, I’ll agree that strawberries do taste very good, more so for being, usually, the first fruits of the season.

I just took a look at my strawberry bed; weeds are making inroads and the plants look pretty puny. Dispatching the weeds is no problem. As far as the puny plants, it was to be expected. Although strawberries are perennial plants, over time they pick up diseases, including some virus diseases lacking dramatic symptoms except that they reduce productivity. So a strawberry bed should be replanted — at a new location — every 5 years. My garden notes tell me my strawberry bed is 8 years old.

My strawberry bed in its prime

My strawberry bed in its prime

Strawberries send out shoots, called runners, at the ends of which develop new plants which, in turn, send out runners that also develop new plants, ad infinitum. So an untended bed can become very weedy, with strawberries. Even a well-tended bed sneaks in a few extra plants here and there. None of these plants should be used to start a new strawberry bed! Viruses are systemic, so all these new plants will also carry any virus infection.

I’ll be ordering my new strawberry plants from a nursery that sells certified disease and virus free strawberry plants. Then, at least, the plants start off “clean.”

The Best Berry Of All

If I had authored that quote by Dr. Boteler, I would have applied it to highbush blueberries. Not only are they, in my opinion, the best tasting berry, but the plants are truly perennial, remaining productive for 50 years or more. And I can harvest them standing up.Bunch of blueberries

No one is sure just how long a blueberry bush will thrive because they haven’t been cultivated for very long. It was only about a hundred years ago that Dr. Frank Coville of the USDA started studying blueberries in an effort to learn how to grow them. Previous to that, harvests were from wild plants. Even 50 years ago, fresh blueberries rarely appeared on grocer’s shelves.

Of Strawberries And Intrigue

Strawberries, also, have come into cultivation relatively recently, in this case over the past 200 years. Garden strawberries, that is, which owe their origin to a chance mating of two American species of strawberry in a garden in France.

One parent of the modern garden strawberry is the Virginia strawberry of eastern North America. Plants of this tasty, small-fruited species were brought over to Europe and planted in gardens there as early as the 17th century.

Intrigue enters the story in the arrival of the other parent of the modern, garden strawberry, the Chilean strawberry, to Europe. Moving the clock forward to the beginning of the 18th century, we find the French King Louis XIV needing a spy to observe Spanish fortifications in Concepcion, Chile. For this task, he chooses Amédée Francois Frezier, a young lieutenant colonel who had already distinguished himself with an aptitude for foreign languages and science. Amédée set sail on an armed merchant marine ship in 1712.

Upon his arrival in Concepcion, Chile, Amédée posed as a merchant marine captain, which enabled him to visit Spanish fortifications as a tourist. Secretly, he kept notes and made sketches of ammunition stores and escape routes. Besides military reports, Amédée also wrote about the indigenous peoples, the physical geography, and agriculture of the region. One of the plants that caught the lieutenant colonel’s fancy was the Chilean strawberry, which bore fruits larger than those that were known in Europe. Amédée included descriptions and sketches of the Chilean strawberry in his notes, and when it finally came time to leave Chile in 1714, he packed up five plants to smuggle back for his return voyage.

The marriage of the two species finally took place in a strawberry field near Brest, France as a bee carried pollen from the flower of a Virginia strawberry to the female flower of a Chilean strawberry. A seed from the fruit that developed germinated and grew into a plant that was the first modern, hybrid strawberry, combining the large size of one with the high flavor and intense red color of the other.

Better Strawberries

Since Dr. Boteler and Izaak Walton were writing in the 17th century, that “better berry” to which they referred could not have been the modern, garden strawberry. But other species were enjoyed before the modern species came into being: the alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca), and the musk strawberry (Fragaria moschata). Both species yield delectable, though small, fruits, and are still available today. I’ve grown both.

Musk strawberry

Musk strawberry

Musk strawberry might be the best tasting of all, but yielded very little for me.White alpine strawberries

I’ve grown, and still grow, alpine strawberries, white ones that have a pineapple-y flavor and are ignored, because of their lack of color, by birds. The plants are cold-hardy, don’t make runners, and bear all season long. The fruits are a nice, little treat, but not ones with which you’d fill your freezer. For that, the one to plant is  some variety of the modern, garden strawberry. I’ll be ordering plants of Earliglow.


 More Fruits to Plant!?

Pawpaw, tastes like crème brûlée

Pawpaw, tastes like crème brûlée

   You’d think, after so many years of gardening and a love of fruits being such a important part of said gardening, that by now I would have planted every fruit I might ever have wanted to plant. Not so!
    Hard to imagine, but even here in the 21st century, new fruits are still coming down the pike. I don’t mean apples with grape flavor (marketed as grapples), a mango nectarine (actually, just a nectarine that looks vaguely like a mango), or strawmato (actually a strawberry-shaped tomato).
    There are plenty of truly new fruits, in the sense of kinds of fruits hardly known to most people, even fruit mavens. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of them. Aronia is a beautiful fruit that makes a beautiful juice, so it’s getting more press these days. I grew it and thought it tasted awful. Goji’s another one in the public’s eye for it’s many health benefits and ease of growing; it also tasted terrible and I also escorted that plant to the compost pile.
    Some lesser known kin of raspberry had greater potential. I planted arctic raspberry, which grows as a groundcover and has been used in breeding for the good flavor it imparts to its offspring. The plant never bore for me. Salmonberry and thimbleberry similarly had gustatory potential but never bore well in my garden. I’ll give these plants another try someday.
    I’m tentative about honeyberries, which are blue-fruited, edible species of honeysuckle that bear young, fruit early in the season, and weather cold to minus 40 degrees F.. The “blueberry-like fruit” is so only in being blue. I planted a couple of bushes about 20 years ago and was not impressed with their yield or flavor — but I admit to neglecting the plants. More importantly, a lot of breeding has been done to improve the plants since I put my bushes in the ground. Stay tuned for my tastebuds’ report on the flavor of recently planted Blue Mist, Blue Moon, and Blue Sea honeyberries.

Some Fruits Are So Easy — And Tasty

    Reading what I just wrote might give the impression that planting any fruit except apples, peaches, and cherries — the usual, that is — leads to either failure or tentative flavor. Again, not so!

Persimmons, nashi, figs, and grapes

Persimmons, nashi, figs, and grapes

 Uncommon fruits adaptable over large swathes of the country that are easy to grow and have excellent flavor include pawpaw, American persimmon, gooseberry, black currant, hardy kiwifruit, Nanking cherry, and alpine strawberry — all documented in detail in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. All these plants grow and bear with little or no intervention on my part (and are available from such nurseries as and

Seaberries on bush in fall

Seaberries on bush in fall

    Seaberry (Hippophae rhamnoides) didn’t make it into the book, which includes only “dessert fruits,” that is, those you can enjoy by just popping them into your mouth. But I’m happy I gave these bushes some of my real estate. Juiced, diluted, and sweetened, the delectable flavor is akin to rich orange juice mixed with pineapple. What’s more, the bushes are decorative and tolerate neglect, cold, drought, and deer.

New Fruits

    This spring I’m planting a new kind of a somewhat familiar fruit, back raspberries. They’re also called blackcaps, and grow wild along woodland borders, which is where I gather my harvest. (A ripe blackcap comes off the plant with a hollow core, like a thimble, in contrast to a ripe blackberry, whose core persists.)
    Blackcaps have perennial roots but their stems are typically biennial, growing only leaves their first year, fruiting in midsummer of their second year, then dying.

Blackcaps, ripe last summer

Blackcaps, ripe last summer

    Two new blackcap varieties, Niwot ( and Ohio’s Treasure (, do this one better: They start to bear on new canes towards the end of the first season, then bear again on those same canes, now one-year-old, in midsummer of the following year. You reap two crops per year, one in midsummer and one in late summer going on into fall. Or, for easier care but only one crop per year, the whole planting is mowed to the ground each year for a late summer-fall harvest.
    These two-crop blackcaps, just like two-crop (sometimes called everbearing) red and yellow raspberries, have the added advantage of bearing their first crop the same year that they are planted. My plan is to plant in mid-April, even though right now more than a foot of snow still blankets the ground.

Vegetables Are So Easy

    Snow or no snow, I’m sowing vegetable seeds, the second wave of the season. (My seed sources are,,, and Today, the lineup includes the new varieties (for me) Tuscan Baby Leaf kale, Tiburon Ancho hot pepper, and Round of Hungary and Odessa Market sweet peppers. With encores for their good past performance are Gustas Brussels sprouts, Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, Winterbor kale, and Carmen Sweet, Sweet Italia, and Italian Peperocini sweet peppers.