Wander through markets or backyards of a hundred, 300, or even a thousand years ago, and you’d find some unfamiliar fruits. A number of fruits that were known and enjoyed centuries ago—among them, quince, medlar, cornelian cherry, clove currant, and mulberry—have fallen by the wayside. Flavor isn’t the reason—rather, lower yields, the difficulty of being shipped halfway around the world, and poor appearance all spell death to market fruits in our modern global economy.
The plants of many of these “forgotten fruits” are still available—and while they might not make good commercial fruits, they’re great for the backyard. Given their history, these plants and their fruits are especially appropriate in old-house settings. Here are six varieties to try.
What it is: The true quince of antiquity (Cydonia oblonga) is a small tree or large shrub sporting pretty white flowers in spring. The fruits, which ripen in autumn, resemble downy, muscular Golden Delicious apples.
History: Some allege it to have been Eve’s “apple.” In any case, the fruit was very popular up to Victorian times, and you occasionally find an old tree still gracing the grounds of an old home. (Nowadays, the quince most frequently seen around houses is flowering quince [Chaenomeles japonica], a related ornamental shrub whose fruit would need plenty of cooking and sweetening to be rendered edible.)
Care & use: Cooked, the fruit turns pink and spicy, perfect in jelly, to add pizazz to applesauce or pie, or, with a bit of honey, stewed by itself.
Hardiness: Zones 5-9
What it is: Closely related to quince, medlar (Mespilus germanica) is more tree-like in form yet smaller in stature, making it perfect for a small yard. Its spring blossoms are followed by golfball-size fruits that resemble russet apples with the bottom ends flared open.
History: Charlemagne commanded that medlar be planted in every town he conquered. Admittedly an ugly fruit, medlar was described by D.H. Lawrence as “wineskins of brown morbidity.”
Care & use: Naturally softened after picking, medlar’s brown flesh tastes like rich applesauce with a hint of wine.
Hardiness: Zones 5-8
What it is: In taste and appearance, cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is a dead ringer for tart cherry, except it’s much easier to grow. In addition, buds on this dogwood relative unfold very early in spring to yellow blossoms that stay in bloom for weeks.
History: Cornelian cherry was popular in ancient Greece and Rome, and in England up into the 19th century, where it was known as cornel plum.
Care & use: Use cornelian cherry as you would tart cherry, but the fruit will mellow and taste good fresh if allowed to hang longer on the tree or even sit in a bowl for a couple of days. Like quince and medlar, cornelian cherry demands little more than sunlight and reasonably good soil. Little or nothing is required by way of pest control or even pruning.
Hardiness: Zones 4-8
What it is: The perky yellow flowers of clove currant (Ribes odoratum) bloom in early spring, followed in July and August by aromatic, sweet-tart black currants.
History: Clove currant was a common dooryard shrub in early America, planted so its sweet clove fragrance could waft onto front porches and into open windows.
Care & use: A native of the Midwest, clove currant tolerates any amount of cold, heat, drought, deer, insects, and diseases. The plant has a somewhat scraggly growth habit, and it sends up shoots from creeping underground stems, so unless pruned, is not for the formal garden. It’s perfect for covering a bank, though. The fruit is good fresh, but also cooks up to make a very tasty jam.
Hardiness: Zones 4-8
What it is: Strawberries have been popular since olden times, but not in the form you’re familiar with. The strawberries of antiquity are alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca) and musk strawberries (F. moschata, shown at right). Don’t expect to fill your freezer with these fruits, because they are small, with consequently low yields. But flavor! Alpines have an intense strawberry flavor with a hint of pineapple and bear all season long. Musk strawberries taste like a delectable commingling of strawberries and raspberries.
History: Alpine strawberries grow throughout northern regions of the world; musk strawberries are native to Europe. Both were popular throughout medieval times, but their general popularity was eclipsed in the 19th century with the development of the larger-fruited, modern garden strawberry.
Care & use: Both species thrive best in well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. Musk strawberries, like modern strawberries, make runners (above-ground stems that root along their lengths to make new plants), so they need periodic thinning out of excess plants to prevent overcrowding. Alpines don’t make runners, so they’re perfect for garden edging or pots. Both species are very soft and very flavorful when ripe.
Hardiness: Zones 3-10 (alpine), 4-10 (musk)
What it is: Various species of mulberry (Morus spp.) grow wild and are cultivated throughout the U.S. These fast-growing trees bear a profusion of fruits that look like elongated blackberries. Their flavor ranges from sweet to sweet-tart.
History: Asian white mulberry was imported 200 years ago as silkworm food for what was hoped would be an American cottage industry; the industry failed, but white mulberries thrived and spread, mingling with our native red mulberry to form myriad natural hybrids. From among the many wild mulberry plants, a number of superior varieties were selected and propagated, the first being Downing’s Everbearing in 1846. Henry Ward Beecher wrote that he would “rather have one tree of Downing’s Everbearing mulberries than a bed of strawberries.” Other varieties followed, including New American, Johnson, and Travis.
Care & use: One of the best-tasting mulberry varieties still available is the Illinois Everbearing, which traces its origin to 1958 on a farm in Illinois. Like other forgotten fruits, Illinois Everbearing is easy to grow, requiring little or no care once established, and its glossy leaves recall bygone days. The easiest way to harvest mulberries is to spread a clean sheet on the ground to catch the fruit that falls as you shake the branches. The fruit is very good fresh; cooked, it’s best combined with other fruits that are more tart.
Hardiness: Zones 5-8 (red and white mulberries), 7-10 (black mulberries)