CO-Horts Blog

Friday, April 21, 2023

Alternative Small Fruits

By Yvette Henson, CSU Extension, San Miguel Basin.

Recently, I was a co-instructor for the Colorado Master Gardener Small Fruits Review. One of my favorite sections to cover is Alternative Small Fruits.

What is a 'small fruit'? The way I understand it is that both the plants and the fruits are generally smaller than tree fruits like apples. Both the apple and the tree it grows on are larger than a raspberry and a raspberry plant, for example. Since there is not a strict definition, the lines can be blurred in a few situations. Other common small fruits are strawberries, grapes, blueberries, blackberries, etc.  I would define an alternative small fruit as a small fruit that isn't commonly grown or sold in grocers.  

The first alternative small fruit I want to cover is black elderberry, Sambuscus nigra subsp. canadensis. (Please take note, that our native, red-fruited elderberry is toxic!)  Black elderberries are hardy (zone 3 or 4) shrubs that produce clusters of cream-colored flowers, followed by clusters of dark-purple fruits.  The fruits are used in pies, jams and jellies.  Elderberry syrup is known to be immunity building.  In the UK, it is popular to make a cordial with the blooms and the blooms can also be eaten in salads or fritters.  It is important to plant more than one for good pollination and fruit set. To prune, cut branches that are 3 years old and older all the way to the ground in early spring. 

Another alternative small fruit known for its antioxidant properties is Aronia melanocarpa, black chokeberry.  These fruits are among the highest in antioxidants among temperate fruits.  They are suckering shrubs hardy to Zone 3 that grow 3-6' x 3-6'.  The white flowers and purple fruit are in clusters.  The fruit are high in tannins and don't taste good unless processed or frozen. They aren't fussy about soil and don't require a lot of pruning.  They are not drought tolerant, requiring more than 15" of irrigation a year.  An added plus is a rusty red fall color on the leaves.

It is very challenging to grow blueberries in Colorado because of our alkaline soils, arid climate and desiccating winds.  A very hardy small fruit we can grow is honeyberry, Lonicera caerulea. The 6' shrubs are hardy to zone 2, and even better, the small pinkish flowers are hardy to -7 degrees F!  The fruit has many uses: eaten fresh, in ice cream and smoothies or jams, syrup, etc.  More than one variety is needed for pollination.  They have few pest problems and are easy to grow.

Goji berries, Lycium barbarum, are another popular 'super fruit' that I was surprised to learn grows in Colorado.  It is an arching shrub-vine that grows to 4'+ and is hardy to Zone 4.  Beware that it suckers and can be invasive if not kept in check!  It has pretty pink flowers that mature to oval orangish red that are most popular dried in trail mix and in teas.

The last plant I want to talk about is Nanking cherry, Prunus tomentosa. It is a tall shrub (15') that is native to China, hardy to zone 2 or 3.  Nanking cherries do well planted in a hedge or windbreak and benefit from cross pollination.  They tolerate dry soil.  The fruit are bright red 'cherries' about the size of the end of your finger.  They have a tart but pleasant taste and can be eaten fresh, if you can beat the birds to them!  They are tasty in pies and jelly.

Let me know in the comments if you grow any of these alternative small fruits in your garden!

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