Beautiful Shrubs – Edible Fruit

by Jan Cashman

April is the time to start planting shrubs. This year, consider shrubs that are not just pretty, but have edible berries. Intersperse them in your landscape as ornamentals that will also put food on the table. Although most of the berries of these fruiting shrubs are for jams and jellies, some are good made into pies and a few of them are sweet enough to eat fresh. The deep colors of many of these berries suggest that they are high in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. They also attract our feathered friends. In fact, you have to be quick to pick their fruit before the birds do.

Some of the best fruiting shrubs are found in the Prunus (plum) genus. Native to China and Japan, hardy Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) has lovely pale pink flowers all along its stem. It is one of the first shrubs to flower in the spring and can be planted as a single plant but also makes an attractive hedge, growing to about 8 feet. The small red cherries are tart like pie cherries and make excellent jams, jellies and wine.

Western sand cherry (Prunus besseyi) is tolerant of dry soils and produces black acidy cherries that can be used for preserves. The shrub grows to approximately 5 feet high and wide with fragrant white flowers in early spring and silvery-green leaves. A new Western sand cherry introduction from Colorado called ‘Pawnee Butte’ hugs the ground like a spreading juniper but still produces lots of black cherries.

My mother used to make delicious syrup from common chokecherries, also in the Prunus genus. Most of the chokecherries we sell are Canada red cherry, a selection from the native that has red leaves. The fragrant white flowers and fruit of the Canada red cherry are no different from the common. Chokecherries can be grown as small single stem trees (20 feet) or as clumps. A row of them makes an effective tall screening hedge.

Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), no relation to chokecherry, is a small, compact shrub with four seasons of interest that grows easily in all types of soil. The common name “chokeberry” comes from the astringency of the black fruits which are inedible when raw. However, the berries are extremely high in antioxidants and can be cooked with sugar added for juice or jam. The astringency of the fruit doesn’t bother the birds; they’ll eat the berries all winter. ‘Autumn Magic,’ a new cultivar from Canada, has more flowers, larger fruit and beautiful red-purple fall color.

Ribes (currant) is another genus of shrubs that produces edible fruit. Red lake currants and gooseberries, both ribes, bear their fruit on 2 to 3 year old wood, so won’t produce much the first couple of years. Bright red currants make great jams and jellies. My husband, Jerry, says gooseberry pie is the best pie he has ever eaten. Unfortunately, many of the currants are carriers of white pine blister rust. This disease affects white pines in eastern U.S. Around Ennis, white pine blister rust has started to infect and kill native limber pines, a relative of white pine. Black currant is immune to this disease, so it would be a better currant to plant.

Serviceberry, Saskatoons, Saskatoon serviceberry, Shadblow, Juneberry are all common names for the same fruiting shrub, Amelanchier alnifolia. This fruiting shrub is sometimes called Western blueberry because it is native and grows easily here, where true blueberries prefer more acid soils than we have. Huckleberry, a native with fruit similar to a blueberry, is growing in the surrounding mountains, but huckleberries also prefer more acid soils than are found in our valley. Juneberries are tasty and can be eaten fresh or used in the same ways you would use a blueberry. Indians dried Juneberries to make pemmican. Smoky and Theissen are two varieties grown commercially by Canadians that produce an abundance of sweet, mild fruit.

Regent is a form of Juneberry that makes a good landscape shrub because it stays smaller and more compact than the native, growing to 5 or 6 feet in height and width; the native will grow to over 12 feet. Regent has stunning yellow-red fall color. All varieties of Juneberry are suitable for a hedge.

Elderberry is a tall, hardy, native shrub which produces an edible berry. It is one of our fastest growing shrubs; a mature elderberry which you have pruned severely will grow back to 6 feet or more in one summer. Adams and York are two selections grown for their large fruit and productivity. Plant one of each for better pollination. Elderberries, especially high in antioxidants, are used for pies, jams, and wine.

Buffaloberry, called bullberry by the old-timers, is a large, extremely drought resistant native shrub that has silvery leaves and orange-red berries which make wonderful jelly. The challenge is harvesting the fruit. The shrubs have sharp thorns and do not let go of their fruit easily. Jerry has a friend in Eastern Montana that he supplies with the fruit; then she gives us some of her jelly. By mid to late October when the berries are ripe, he puts a tarp under the shrub and beats the branches with a stick. Of course, leaves and twigs end up with the berries and have to be separated. Buffaloberries form a significant part of game birds’ diets in Montana.

Highbush cranberry and other viburnums have edible berries good for jelly, although most of us let the birds have their berries. In early winter, cedar waxwings flock in and eat them all off the cranberrybush right outside our window in one day.

Fruiting shrubs are attractive in the landscape and give you nutritious food for your family or your feathered friends. Find room in your yard for them this spring!