by Sharon Hockenhull
credit: Lubera, Kore Wild Fruit Nursey & © Lidia Rakcheeva
Sharon Hockenhull, fruit enthusiast and founder of fruitshare.co.uk, takes a look at some unusual berries she’ll be trying out at her plot this year.
The beauty of growing fruit is that it’s easy. Fruit is tough, reliable and requires far less TLC than vegetables. This minimal maintenance along with generally abundant, flavoursome yields makes growing fruit perfect for the time-conscious. Over the last few years I have squeezed a number of fruit bushes into my garden borders. Most are the familiar types, such as blackcurrants and raspberries, with a couple of interesting varieties such as purple raspberry ‘Glen Coe’ and red gooseberry ‘Hinnomaki Red’. But now I’m up for trying something really different, a sort of fruity adventure, due to the discovery of some rather interesting berries: the fourberry, aronia berry and saskatoon.
All three seem to be pretty incredible plants. They’re great ornamental performers, don’t take up too much space and produce good crops of health-boosting fruits – perfect for smaller gardens.
Ribes odoratum ‘Black Pearl’ and ‘Black Gem’, known as the black fourberry, are new introductions (an orange-berried version is also on the way). Relations of the familiar blackcurrant, redcurrant and whitecurrant, these new varieties were carefully selected from 4,000 seedlings by the Swiss breeders Lubera thanks to four main attractions (hence the name): beautiful yellow and white flowers in April; a heavy perfume; big, sweet berries and incredibly stunning autumn foliage.
As this fruit is so new, and gardeners in the UK have not seen it through one full season yet, I asked the breeders, Lubera, to give me a low-down on, well, everything. The fourberry is an upright bushy shrub that only grows to about 1.5 metres high, which, together with its other appealing qualities, will probably make it one of the best ornamental and edible plants for small gardens. The shrubs are tough, very hardy and can be grown in most soils. They’re also drought-tolerant, a good choice for coastal sites and can be grown in containers, a 50-litre pot is recommended by Lubera.
The fruit sounds almost too good to be true: sweet and juicy black berries, bigger than any blackcurrant. They ripen over a long period of time so you need to be patient and wait until the first ones start to crack. If temptation proves too hard to withstand and you pick too early, you’ll be disappointed by a mouthful of sourness. ‘Black Pearl’ ripens in mid-July to August and has the largest berries, while ‘Black Gem’ ripens later with smaller fruits.
The flavours are intriguing and are described by Lubera as being “like blackcurrant without the cassis aroma and if very ripe sometimes with an exotic perfume, sometimes with a hint of resin”. The berries are sweet and can be eaten fresh or used in jams, sauces or juices. With these flavours, a fourberry wine, steeped vodka or even gin might also be worth a shot. Berries can also be left on the bush to dry out in hot summers …and even then they are said to be delicious!
Aronia berries have been described as the healthiest fruit in the world. An uber-super food, they contain very high quantities of antioxidants and vitamin C. The black Aronia berry (Aronia melanocarpa) contains the greatest amounts due to the very dark pigments, but the purple berry (Aronia x prunifolia) is packed with almost as much health-boosting goodness.
Mark Diacono from Otter Farm (www.otterfarm.co.uk) has been growing Aronia x prunifolia for about four years and kindly offered to share some of his experience with me.
Aronia x prunifolia grows to about 3m x 3m and offers a more attractive form and better flowers than the melanocarpa species. It produces pretty white flowers around May, followed by the purple berries and a striking display of autumn leaf colour. Mark says, “It’s perfect for smaller gardens as it gets to a nice height without being too dense so it offers interest and structure without being too dominant.”
The berries are similar to cranberries but a deeper purple. They are too tart to eat raw, but they can be used for making jams and jellies, with the latter being a good accompaniment to goose and cheese, according to Mark. Add some sugar and the berries can also be used in sauces, to add a vitamin punch to puddings, or in juices.
In terms of growing, they’re said to be tolerant of a range of climates, but will perform best in damp and mild conditions (perfect for where I live in the North West). They will also grow well in a large pot, according to Mark, as long as you keep on top of watering and give them an occasional feed.
Mark’s plants, bought as mature specimens, fruited in the first year, produce a good yield of great quality fruit and have not been troubled with pests or diseases.
Overall, Mark thinks, “As an all-rounder for foliage, flowers and fruit, they’re really worth the space.”
Saskatoon, I was surprised to learn, belongs to the beautifully ornamental Amelanchier genus – its botanical name is Amelanchier alnifolia. Again, it’s a shrub that gives you the best of everything: pretty white flowers and coppery spring leaves; pinky-red fruits that turn a deep purple in June to July plus great autumn foliage.
The saskatoon berry is technically a pome so it looks more like a mini apple than a soft plump berry. Coral Guppy from Kore Wild Fruit Nursery (www.korewildfruitnursery.co.uk) is an expert in growing unusual fruiting plants and has experience of tending and tasting saskatoons. Coral says, “The flavour is quite apple-like except with less acidity, which means you don’t need to use so much sugar.” Coral loves to graze on these fruits, picking them straight from the bush or she adds them to a bowl of cereal or a fruit salad. They are good for baking, especially in muffins, as an alternative to blueberries or blackcurrants, and many of Coral’s customers also use them in crumbles and pies. “Saskatoon juice is also very pleasant, on its own with just a little sweetener, or mixed with whatever else is available,” Coral says.
Coral has grown these plants in a container and they have produced a crop. However, in her experience, they do perform better in a border. Her best-fruiting bushes have grown to about 1.5 metres high in ten years. Eventual height and spread is about 5m x 3m, although there is a smaller variety called ‘Regent’ that grows to 2m x 2m. The shrub tolerates a wide range of soil types, from dry to damp and even chalky conditions. But, like most fruit, the best position for bumper crops is in full sun.
A few more unusual options . . .
Mark and Coral both grow a wide range of unusual fruits and I couldn’t help asking for some more ideas for small spaces. “Some of the new dwarf fruit trees open up the possibility of growing quince and medlars to those with small gardens. Otherwise, Chilean guava (Myrtus ugni) is a gorgeous fruit that’s not unlike the blueberry, but with a more rounded, fuller flavor,” Mark says. Coral also lists the Chilean guava as a favourite as it performs really well in pots. As well as this she says, “I would definitely have a Feijoa (Acca sellowiana) on a balcony in a sunny spot, as the flowers and fruit are both edible,” and she sings the praises of the Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas. “It’s slow-growing, small and very easy to look after. It can be trimmed and kept as a specimen like a bay tree or an olive in a large container, or it would be great in a small garden. The fruit is reliable and lovely. I can’t grow proper cherries here because of the windy and wet climate but I can grow these with no trouble at all”.
Sharon Hockenhull is a garden designer and landscaper based near Manchester (www.sharonhockenhull.co.uk). Her passion for growing fruit led her to exhibit an urban fruit garden, ‘Be Fruitful’, at the RHS Flower Show Tatton Park in 2009 where she was awarded a Silver-Gilt medal. Sharon is also the founder of www.fruitshare.co.uk, an online network for sharing surplus garden-grown fruits.