By Vera Strader;
If you want to add an unusual treat or two to your garden this winter, consider planting these sometimes-offbeat varieties. These fruits are seldom offered in the grocery and are of poor quality when they do appear. Grow your own and you will be amply rewarded, and your friends and neighbors will clamor for samples.
PERSIMMONS. Persimmons are the orchard queen. The bright orange fruit drape from the branches in nature´s version of an early Christmas tree, often accompanied or preceded by a similarly colored leaf display.
There are two kinds of persimmons. If you´re familiar only with those with flesh that is astringent until very soft, the Oriental persimmons that are eaten while still firm and crunchy will be a flavorsome surprise. With your own tree, you´ll be able to pick these crisp fruits over an extended period. When soft ripe, both varieties can be used in baking or as a tasty dessert.
POMEGRANATES. The pomegranate is another garden knockout that sports both showy red spring flowers and bright autumn fruit. Purchased in the grocery, pomegranates will set your wallet back a pretty penny. But grow your own and pick them before they split, and they hold for weeks, even months in the refrigerator.
Though growers offer a pomegranate plant said to be nearly seedless, most pomegranates are filled with hundreds of sweet-tart seeds. Eat them as is, with a touch of sugar, or add them to salads, or juice them. A cut-up persimmon with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds makes a most unusual dessert.
JUJUBES. Sometimes called the Chinese date, this fruit is pronounced ju-ju-bee. The jujube is a shapely and drought tolerant tree once established. It is another autumn producer with clusters of round or oval fruit that can be eaten at various stages. Harvested when it first turns reddish brown, it is crisp, a bit like an apple; when it is fully brown and soft, it is good for drying. If left on the tree to split and dry, it looks and tastes much like a date, hence its common name. Place ant traps out to eliminate hungry ants before your jujubes ripen and split, for ants too relish a ripe jujube.
PLUOTS AND APRIUMS. If apricots and plums both grow in your area, you can grow pluots and apriums since they are apricot/plum crosses. They´re said to be some of the sweetest fruits you can grow; our Flavor Queen pluot is a delightful blend of Santa Rosa plum flavors and juicy sweetness. Our freezer now holds a nice winter supply of this treat.
PRUNES. Mention prunes and you´re likely to engender a few snickers from your audience. Prunes are simply not-so-juicy plums and can be used in the same way as other plums. Prunes are especially useful for eating fresh, for canning, and of course for drying. If you already have a plum tree, you can extend your crop with a prune that ripens at a different time.
GOOSEBERRIES AND RHUBARB. These are two favorites from Grandma´s garden, famous for use in pies and preserves. They´re just as good, even better, today as there are many varieties from which to choose.
Gooseberries range from very tart to fairly sweet. They grow on bushes that can range from nearly thornless to stickery enough to put a porcupine to shame. I´m partial to the berries with a real “kick,” but unfortunately our bush is so well armored that picking is a real challenge.
Lode gardeners are lucky when it comes to rhubarb, as rhubarb grows best with winter chill. Rhubarb is low growing with lush, large leaves, and easily doubles as an attractive ornamental. Divisions of the pink or red “strawberry” varieties are readily available in nurseries. If you prefer the really tart kind, you may have to start it from seed. My green Glaskins Perpetual rhubarb seeds grew quickly and we now have three flourishing clumps.
For the best start, plant all of these fruits bare root now. Check with your nursery person to be assured of varieties that thrive in your area, and ask to have them ordered if necessary. In some cases, a second variety is required for better pollination.
See you in the garden.
Vera Strader is a Sonora based Master Gardener and registered dietician who believes that, as her mother said, “Several fruits a day keep the doctor away.”