Fruit Nuts, Including Me, Nurseries, & Wild Blueberries

Are there organizations for people who make and eat cheese; build and ride motorcycles; write and read books; grow and savor fruits? All I know is that the answer to the existence of the last-named organization is a rowsing “yes!” I know because I recently returned from Oregon, where I converged with other fruit nuts  for the annual meeting of North American Fruit Explorers (, and nuts, incidentally, are also covered under the organization’s umbrella).

No need to don a pith helmet and traipse off to Borneo to be a fruit explorer. Not that you couldn’t, and be one. No, this fun meeting brought together everyone from backyard growers with a few fruit plants to AN 88-year-old guy who grows over 3,000 varieties of apples. Fruits represented ranged from apples and pears to pawpaws and persimmons and, even more rare, haskaps and gumis. These people, we, realize that there’s a lot more to enjoy in the world of nature’s desserts — fruits, that is — than what you see on display in the supermarket, even farmers’ market.

What appeared to be a roomful of normal people was actually a roomful of fruit nuts, among which I count myself. NAFEX members are as varied as the fruits they grow, with all ages, genders, home towns, and “real jobs” represented. Members can share their trials, tribulations, and rewards of fruit growing (the title of my lecture there), ask questions, and exchange plants in their quarterly publication.

Me, staring through espalier pear at Mt. Vernon, WA research station

Me, staring through espalier pear at Mt. Vernon, WA research station

Each year’s annual meeting is at a “fruitful” location. Last week’s meeting took in tours of the USDA germplasm repository, which houses the USDA collection of pears, gooseberries, currants, and bramble fruits, and of research centers on hazelnuts and brambles. All accompanied, of course, by tastings. If you love fruit, grow some . . . and join NAFEX.

Branching Off to Pakistani Mulberries, Delectable Crabs, and More

I branched off (pardon the pun) from the group to visit a few nurseries. First stop was Whitman Farms (, at which I made a beeline to Lucille Whitman’s black mulberry (Morus nigra) tree, an offshoot of which I’ve grown for many years. I grow it in a pot because it’s a subtropical species, not cold-hardy here. It’s worth the effort because it is among the most delectable of fruits. It’s hard to imagine that such a small berry can pack such a wallop of rich, sweet-tart flavor, much better than the wild mulberries around here. Lucille also grows a slew of gooseberry and currant varieties, another group of fruits that worthy of wider attention.

Black Pakistani mulberry

Black Pakistani mulberry

From there it was on to Burnt Ridge Nursery (, worth visiting also for its panoramic view of the Cascade Mountains, including Mount Saint Helens. I soon realized, driving down the gravel nursery road, that we were passing through a virtual Garden of Eatin’, with apples and pear trees,  grapes, and hardy kiwi vines. The forest of large trees turned out to be a nursery owner Michael Dolan’s extensive collection of chestnuts. It was too early in the season to taste any chestnuts but I did get to taste his Black Pakistani mulberry, which had a chewy texture and perhaps even richer flavor than black mulberry. (Black Pakistani is a variety of M. alba, white mulberry.) Another plus for Black Pakistani is that its fruit is two or more inches long. (Lucille Whitman also sells Black Pakistani. Note to myself: Get a Black Pakistani tree to grow in a pot, like a fig.)

Finally, I motored along with Sam Benowitz north to Washington state, to his nursery, Raintree Nursery ( We were greeted at the nursery entrance by espaliered apple trees, then plum trees whose branches bowed

Centennial crabapple tastes good and looks good.

Centennial crab apple rates great; a crab is any small apple.

low from their load of fruit. A Centennial crabapple tree splayed out its small but ripe fruits, which were delicious, especially for a summer apple. Another note to myself: Purchase or make a Centennial crabapple. Pots of lingonberries were lush with their shiny evergreen leaves, the size of mouse ears; persimmons leaves hung languidly from the trees’ branches; and hardy kiwifruit brightened up the scene with silvery variegation, blushed with pink. Alas, these fruits were not yet ripe so for the time being provided only eye candy.

They Call Them Huckleberries

Fruit nuts are a friendly fraternity, ready to share experiences and fruit. Blueberries are among my favorite fruits, and my newfound, northwestern friends were anxious to introduce me to some western blueberry species. First was red huckleberry (V. parvifolium). Not to be an ingrate, but . . . yuk! A very small, very tart, red blueberry. Perhaps the red color threw me off. Next came evergreen huckleberry (V. ovatum), much tastier, and evergreen, but still not holding a candle to our eastern blueberry species.

Finally, though, I had a taste of mountain huckleberry (V. membranaceum). Delicious. Different but as good as our east coast species.

I was given some leafy stems of mountain huckleberry packed for travel with their bases in water tubes and their leaves wrapped in moist tissue. As soon as I got

Blueberry cuttings in my clear plastic propagator.

Blueberry cuttings in my clear plastic propagator.

home I stripped all but the upper two leaves from the stems and inserted their bases into the mix of moist peat and perlite in my makeshift propagator. The propagator sits on the north side of my house, its clear plastic cover maintaining sufficient humidity while letting in sufficient light until the cuttings root — I hope. Blueberry species are not particularly easy to root, although one of the main ingredients needed is patience. I’ll also sow seeds of the few fruits I brought home.

In a few years, my memories of last week’s journey may also live on in my taste buds.

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose . . . Not!

Perhaps it was youthful rebelliousness, but for years, for decades, I lambasted my father’s roses. The roses reared up their colorful heads on the other side of the low, clipped privet hedge that bordered our terrace. If youthful rebelliousness was at the root of my rose aversion, that rebelliousness has lasted well beyond my youth, right up to the present day even though those roses are no more.
The plants were hybrid tea roses, in various colors. You’ve got to admit that the shrubs themselves, typically with a few gawky stems topped with disproportionately large blossoms, are not much to look at. The pointiness of the blossoms, a sought-after quality among hybrid tea breeders, is, for me, particularly unattractive. Couple that with the blaring colors and you get the picture, for me, that is.
Hybrid tea roses are not particularly tough plants, succumbing to insects, diseases, and winter cold. Which is why my father grew them practically as annuals, often having to replace dead bushes with new ones. What a waste.
Times change, and over the last few years I’ve become a fan of roses. No, not hybrid tea roses! Other types of roses, of which there are many.
Here’s my criteria for a worthy rose (not necessarily in the order of importance): Insect and disease

Father Hugo’s rose

resistance; a full-bodied, corpulent shrub; cup-shaped or single flowers; pastel colors; fragrance; and repeat-blooming. Hybrid tea roses generally lack all these qualities, except for repeat-blooming.

Some species and old-fashioned roses tend to have the qualities I seek. Father Hugo’s rose, Rosa hugonis, is one such rose with single, small, soft yellow blossoms and ferny foliage. It’s supposed to be a tough rose, but mine hasn’t yet lived up to that billing. Too much weed competition, perhaps.
Rugose rose (R. rugosa) is another outstanding rose, this one living up to its reputation for being tough. So much so that it’s considered invasive in some places. Still, I like it for its nonstop blooms of single, usually pink-red flowers, its strong fragrance, and its nice hips — fruits that is, very tasty.
If I had to choose just one rose to plant, that rose would

Rose de Rescht

be my old-fashioned Rose de Rescht. Its petals are soft cerise in color, and are crumpled like crêpe paper with just a bit of organization on the ends of flower stalks. The fragrance is heavenly, to my nose the best of any rose.

Some modern roses — but not hybrid teas! — have also

Apricot Knock Out rose

won me over to my father’s camp.

One such group of moderns are the Knock Out® roses. Very unclassical in appearance, with short, wide stature and mostly single-petalled flowers, these roses are tough and carefree, and bloom all season long. The colors would be gaudy except for their being pleasantly  subdued by the small size of the flowers and their lush and abundant backdrop of glossy, green leaves.
David Austin L. D. Braithwaite
The other modern roses that have won me over are the David Austin roses, all bred with the goal of combining the look and fragrance

David Austin Strawberry Hill

of the old-fashions with the repeat blooming and pest resistance of the moderns. Right now, Strawberry Hill and L. D. Braithwaite are growing very well in my garden, partly the result of a very mild winter.

My father eventually came around to my way of thinking and gave me free rein to rip out his hybrid tea roses and replace them with a mix of other perennial and annual flowers. The view from the terrace was transformed into a spring through autumn panoply of colors and forms from the likes of tree peonies, ligularias, lungwort, bleeding heart, and other perennials. The one constant following the transformation was the line of begonias or marigolds that marched along the edge of the bed, just as they did when the bed was home to roses.
Mulberries have ripened, so a taste test was in order: Illinois Everbearing vs. Oscar vs. Kokuso vs. Gerardi Dwarf vs. random seedling. Oscar was best with Kokuso and the seedling a close second, followed by Illinois Everbearing and then Gerardi Dwarf. These ratings aren’t writ in stone, for me, because confounding everything were big flavor changes that depended on slight changes in ripening — I think.
Note that black mulberry — the species Morus nigra — was not in the running. That’s because the fruits won’t be ripe for awhile and because, I know from experience, it’s far and away the best of them all.

Mulberries, And The Winner Is . . .

I’ve been a fruit nut for a long time, and throughout that time have had a particular attraction to uncommon fruits (about which I wrote a book). Evidence of the latter began with  the planting of a mulberry tree in my front yard when I lived in Wisconsin. The plant and fruit seemed intriguing; little did I know, back then, that mulberry trees were growing all over the place. Right now, I could probably bump into a dozen wild trees within a quarter mile of here, or within a quarter mile of my old domicile in Wisconsin. Mulberry is the second most common “weed” tree in New York City.
Commonness is one reason that mulberry doesn’t “get no respect.” Also, fruits from run-of-the-mill trees are too cloying for most tastes. Still, the fruits are abundant, local, organic, and sustainably “grown,”

and some trees have better than run-of-the-mill flavor. The latter are available as named varieties.

Which is why I could be seen today bending flexible poles aver two small trees. Mulberry fruits are a favorite of birds; I needed to protect the fruits. The two trees — the varieties Oscar and Kokusu — allegedly bear delicious fruits. Taste of the fruit from these small trees will confirm whether or not they are worth keeping and growing into larger trees. If worth keeping, the trees, once large, will bear enough for the birds and humans.
My bird protection was easily erected. The ends of the flexible poles, in short sections held together by an inner elastic cord (from, like tent poles, went into foot-long pieces of PVC pipe that I pounded into the ground. Clothespins hold bird-netting in place on the poles and metal staples pinned the netting to the ground.
‘Illinois Everbearing’ fruit
Three species of mulberry are commonly eaten: white mulberry, Morus alba; red mulberry, M. rubra; and black mulberry, M. nigra. (Fruit color has nothing to do with species names; many white mulberry trees bear black fruits.) In the eastern part of the U.S., we find our native red mulberry as well as white mulberry, introduced from Asia in the early 19th century, as well as hybrids of the two. Black mulberry thrives best in Mediterranean-type climates.
Right next to my two little trees I have an older mulberry, the variety Illinois Everbearing, a natural hybrid of the white and red mulberry species that does indeed bear over many weeks. My Oscar tree is probably a variety of white mulberry. Kokuso is sometimes listed as its own species, M. latifolia. At any rate, all three varieties are supposed to be hardy and delicious.
‘Illinois Everbearing’tree
I can vouch for Illinois Everbearing because I’ve grown it for a number of years. Although hardy, branches often die back because they don’t realize, towards the end of summer, that it’s time to slow down growth and toughen up for winter. I make it slow down as summer wanes by letting grass and weeds grow high at its feet, sucking up excess moisture and nutrients.
The best-tasting of the mulberries, I’d even stick my neck out so far as to say perhaps the best-tasting of all fruits(!), is the black mulberry species. The berries aren’t particularly big but they pack enough flavor that they could be the size of an orange. Their flavor has a nice balance of sweetness and tartness along with some  . . . je ne sais quoi. Mulberryness?
Problem is that black mulberry is not hardy here. I’ve grown it in a pot, but a potted plant has only a limited amount of stems on which to hang fruits so yields are very low. I planted one right in the ground in the greenhouse a few years ago, planning to espalier it as directed in my book, The Pruning Book: “To train a

M. nigra in greenhouse, prior to its demise

mulberry to a tidy form, develop a main set of limbs, then prune branches growing off these limbs to six leaves in July to make short, fruiting spurs.” Not so! I garnered that pruning information from a British book, and it’s evidently is another gardening Britishism that doesn’t work on this side of the pond, probably due to differences in daylength and/or summer temperatures. My tree has done nothing but grow and grow, with little fruit on the abundant, lanky stems.

This week I ripped the black mulberry out of the greenhouse and planted, in its stead, a fig to accompany the three other in-ground figs there. 
A few weeks ago, before the black mulberry awoke from its winter slumber, I cut off a branch and grafted it onto a similarly sized branch of the Illinois

Morus nigra fruits

Everbearing tree. Black mulberry isn’t supposed to be cold-hardy outdoors here, but who knows? It’s a very long shot. As I said, I can’t believe everything I read, even if I wrote it. This time I hope that all of us are wrong.