5 Fabulous Fruits🍓
The best fruits to grow instead of forage to benefit the birds
Dear Avant Gardener, I know lots of people in my town forage and was wondering if adding edible plants is a good idea? — Locavore, Millerton, NY
Yes! Please do add wild edibles to your landscape. Lots of them. And forage there instead. That way you’ll nurture native insects, birds and other wildlife, as well as yourself. If enjoying the fruits of your yard is your focus, I suggest adding fruits especially, as well as ramps and fiddlehead ferns and mushrooms.
My top recommendations for native fruits can all be enjoyed right off the plant with no preparation. They are delicious, ornamental, easy to grow, and beneficial to wildlife. They generally grow on shrubs or small trees and spread into thickets, which makes them great for hedges. Such hedges offer cover, as well as food, for wildlife. Unlike most agricultural crops, they thrive in shade, as well as sun. (Wild strawberry is different; it’s a low-growing groundcover that requires some sun.)
In addition, all these fruit plants host dozens to hundreds of moths and caterpillars, the primary food for the vast majority of terrestrial bird nestlings. And they all offer special value to native bees, according to Xerces Society.
Birds also love most of these fruits, so if you want to keep them for yourself, you’ll have to cover them with netting — an indication that there are not enough in the wild to share with human foragers, by the way. You also might want to check out cultivated varieties for their better yields, although they may not have the same value to wildlife. I have personally planted these fruits and hope to eat some of them, but expect that the birds will consume most. That’s a benefit if I’m too lazy to harvest them.
Here are my top recommendations, native to Dutchess County, as well as much of the country. For more information, see the linked pages at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. (For readers elsewhere, I’ve added an alternative species.)
Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum): I’m using several highbush blueberries as a privacy hedge at the end of our driveway in Bristol, Rhode Island. They have spectacular red fall foliage, and host 295 species of moths and butterflies. Unable to find the pure species, I planted a cultivar, one of the few in my yard. Northwestern alternative: Alpine blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum)
Attracts 30 species of birds including: American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern and Spotted Towhees, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, and Northern Cardinal. — Wildflower.org
American raspberry (Rubus idaeus): There are many delicious native species in the Rubus genus — raspberries, blackberries, and dewberries. They host 164 species of moth and butterfly. I planted flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) in front of the blueberries as a high, flowering ground cover. Rubus tend to spread, so I may live to regret planting them in such tight quarters. I hope to keep them in check by mowing the turf paths around them. A more natural place for raspberries is the outer edge of a small property or a slope in need of erosion control. If your primary interest is eating them, you might choose cultivated variety; however, it may not have as much value to wildlife. West coast alternative: California blackberry (Rubus ursinus)
Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana): Wild strawberry is often recommended as a groundcover in place of turf; it even tolerates some foot traffic. I underplanted one of my hedges with wild strawberries in an area where they’ll get some sun. Fragaria host more species of moth and butterfly than any perennials except goldenrod (Solidago), including the grizzled skipper and gray hairstreak butterflies.
Virginia Strawberry or Wild Strawberry is a ground-hugging plant rising from a fibrous, perennial root system. . . . Found in patches in fields and dry openings, this plant produces the finest, sweetest, wild strawberry. — Wildflower.org
American plum (Prunus americana): After Quercus (oaks), Prunus hosts the most moths and butterflies of any genus — 455 in your area. It’s the only host there for the coral hairstreak butterfly. I’ve just ordered ten young beach plum (Prunus maritima), a smaller sun-loving cousin native to northeast coastal counties, to plant along the road. Both are suckering trees that eventually spread into a thicket if the suckers are not cut. West coast alternative: Prunus subcordata
Plums are not a choice food for wildlife, but the plants provide valuable nesting cover and are a host to many butterflies. . . . The fruits have tough, sour outer skins, but their sweet, juicy flesh is delicious, making excellent jams, jellies, preserves and pies. The plums can also be halved, then pitted and dried like prunes, spread in a thin sheet and dried as fruit leather. — Wildflower.org
Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea): These evidently taste similar to blueberries, but sweeter. I planted a cousin (Amelanchier canadensis) at the end of the area with the blueberries and flowering raspberries — a vertical element at the end of a shrubby hedge surrounded by purple wildflowers. Western alternative: Saskatoon serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)
— The Avant Gardener
P.S. Regular readers, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription so I can reach more people interested in the art and science of ecological landscaping.
Why, How, Wow!
Well-off urbanites or ex-urbanites (like myself) traipsing around with their baskets in the woods strike me as Rousseau-inspired faux primitives, like Marie Antoinette with her sheep. Yes, foraging is an indigenous tradition to be honored. However, the small town of Millerton is a Hudson Valley community that attracts affluent Brooklynites, according to the New York Times; the census indicates zero percent Native American residents.
When people turn foraging into a business — leading tours or, worse, selling foraged finds to restaurants, it destroys the wilderness they find so charming.
At Salt Point State Park [in San Francisco], mushroom hunters sometimes carve new trails into the forest, trample small plants, and illegally use rakes and shovels to turn over the forest floor in search of young, budding mushrooms, according to Farcau. Some, he adds, leave trash piles by the road and toilet paper in the woods.
"It looks like a rock festival has passed through," Farcau says. — NPR
Ramps (wild leeks) have been dangerously over-foraged, because they spread by rhizomes and are harvested from the root. As Louis Gross, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics at the University of Tennessee, explained to NPR:
On average, a 10 percent harvest of ramps will take 10 years to grow back, but Gross cautions that that number can be deceiving. "It could easily be 60 to 80 years recovery, even if you harvest once at 10 percent," he tells The Salt. "And most of these populations aren't harvested once. They're harvested pretty regularly." — NPR
This wanton destruction of wild habitat rankles because — I hate to even bring it up — we are facing a mass extinction. It bears repeating: Global insect populations have declined more than 40 percent in the latest 10-year period; and insects are the foundation of our terrestrial ecosystem. One-third of all birds have disappeared since the 1970s. A major reason is habitat loss.
Planting the five fabulous fruits above and foraging in your own yard creates habitat, rather than destroying it. Another way to forage that benefits wildlife is to forage invasives that have escaped from cultivation and displace the native plants many insects require for survival. Examples include: dandelions, watercress, field mustard, broadleaf plantain, and Japanese knotweed.
Or better yet, forage for trash. Two million people daily practice plogging, a combination of jogging and picking up trash that started in Sweden. Whatever you do, stay on the trails in wild places so you don’t inadvertently trample rare, indigenous plants.
The elusive scarlet tanager is one of 30 species attracted to blueberries. Male scarlet tanagers arrive in their northern breeding grounds in late May to early June. Females follow soon after. The females and nonbreeding males are yellowish-green, not scarlet.
Interested in arguments in favor of foraging? Read Ditch Your Grocery Store. Go Foraging Instead.
Want to find the plants that host the most moths and butterflies in your zip code? Use the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder.
Ready to make picking up trash part of your exercise routine? Here’s The Complete Guide to Plogging.