Here is a sampler of unusual fruits showing up on temperate climate farms and in nurseries. Their rarity in your location, of course, depends on your growing region.
Sea Buckthorn (Hipprophae rhamnoides)
A very productive northern fruiting plant, sea buckthorn, also called sea buckthorn berry or simply sea berry, is actually widely grown and yet very few in America are aware of it. It’s an attractive small tree or shrub native to the Russian Far East. It grows up to ten feet, with narrow silver leaves, spaced seven feet apart unless creating a hedge with plantings three to five feet apart. It is very hardy to minus 50 degrees F., and is easy to grow and resistant to disease. Prolific round yellow-orange fruits from the female plants are very high in vitamin C. In Europe they are made into sauces, jellies and used as a base for liqueurs. The juice is tart and is sweetened or blended with other fruits. Branches are also used in florist displays and the cosmetic and medicinal industry uses oil of the kernel and pulp.
Quince, Tree and Bush (Cydonia oblonga)
On Dog Mountain Farm in Carnation, Washington, owners David & Cindy Krepky have added quince to their sustainably operated community supported agriculture farm, which offers a large variety of better known vegetables, fruits, herbs and cut flowers as well. Nurseries offer several varieties of quince tree, some of which describe the fruit of the quince as a wonderful pineapple-like flavor. Value added products made from quince include jelly and jam, and they are sometimes mixed with apple cider. Almost every rural family had a fruiting quince tree in the early 20th century. The trees grow up to15 feet, some closer to eight to 10 feet, are self fertile with large white blossoms in late spring, and big bright yellow fruit ripening in fall. The late blossoms allow them to avoid spring frost damage. The quince bush is a winter hardy, disease resistant shrub also covered in fall with pineapple and/or citrus flavored fruits used to make jellies, jams or syrups.
Huckleberries (Vaccinium species)
Closely related to blueberries, huckleberries are rarely found in nurseries and yet huckleberry jams, pies and preserves are considered highly prized products. Sometimes more often called wild blueberries in the eastern U.S., they have much the same growing requirements as blueberries. Their berries are small and have a distinct wild flavor. Varieties native to the Pacific Northwest coast, sub-alpine and mountain regions are available, with some being evergreen, and some deciduous. There is at least one variety that grows well in USDA zones 4 through 10.
Kiwis (Actinidia species)
Although becoming well known, the kiwi is still considered a very special fruit, especially with the added novelty of being grown locally and organically. Native to Asia with the fuzzy kiwi introduced from New Zealand and hardy varieties from Russia and Japan, the vines are fast growing, with a variety of sizes of bright green-fleshed sweet fruits. The fuzzy, larger kiwis are hardy in the Pacific Northwest, but colder climates can grow the Arctic Beauty and the Arguta Hardy Kiwis. A male vine is needed for the females to set fruit, with one able to pollinate up to eight females. The fruits ripen in fall, and are usually picked after the first frost, still hard, when they can be stored in refrigeration for months, and then set out to soften. Growers report no significant pest or disease problems, with mature vines producing 25 pounds or more of fruit.
Lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)
Lingonberries are a native European evergreen ground cover. Each plant grows from 12 to 18 inches and when planted in groups, they eventually form a dense mat, which can choke out weeds. They are a delicious cranberry-like fruit ripening in late fall, about the size and shape of a small blueberry. Some varieties are very productive and easy to grow. They’re used for sauces, preserves, pickles, syrup, jelly and wine. They are self-fertile although better production is reported from growing more than one variety. Extremely hardy, growers say they withstand even arctic temperatures. In warm climates, they can produce in semi-shade, and in fact may do better in these circumstances, making them a good second crop under larger crops such as orchards or forest crops trees, although they do need acid soil and cannot take overwatering.
Medlar (Mespilus germanica)
Botanically somewhere between a pear and a hawthorn, the medlar is native to the eastern part of the Mediterranean and the eastern part of Turkey, the western part of Iran and around the Caucasus. Grown in Europe for thousands of years and productive in USDA zones 5–9, the tree is self-fertile, growing up to 10 feet. The fruits are one-inch in diameter, look a little like a crabapple, and are harvested after the first frost. Similar to pears in that they are a fruit that is not picked ripe, the medlar fruit is still quite hard upon harvest. During a process called ‘bletting,’ the fruit is stored in a cool, lighted place to become rich, soft and spicy, described by some growers as having a flavor of cinnamon applesauce and with a wine-like undertone. When fruits are developed enough for eating they are enjoyed raw, made into jelly, folded into whipped cream, and some connoisseurs use them in Old English recipes. Because of their natural storage and need for ‘bletting,’ farmers can offer their customers a late fall or winter crop when other crops are finished.
The mulberry is a self-fertile fruit tree that produces abundantly with varieties that are reliable in USDA zones 4–9. The fruits resemble long raspberries or blackberries, and are used most often as fresh fruits, in baked goods, wine and preserves. The trees need full sun, and can be maintained at 15 feet. One warning is that fruit-eating birds are particularly fond of the mulberry, and their brightly colored juice stains very easily, so don’t plant a row of these over your customers’ parking area! The trees produce a summer crop, July through September, and the fruit is described as chewy, sweet and highly flavored with a pleasing, unique aftertaste.
Nanking Cherry (Prunus tomentosa)
A cherry relative, the Nanking cherry is considered a ‘tart cherry bush.’ It is a beautiful flowering shrub that produces edible tart-cherry-like fruit. Products from the fruit are commonly fresh fruit, pie fillings and jellies. The fruits ripen in summer and are around ½ inch in diameter. The plant is also sold as a wildlife and windbreak plant. This deciduous shrub grows in USDA zones 2–8 and matures at six to 12 feet. It is native to Asia, tolerant to drought, and requires a soil that is well drained.
Elderberries (Sambucus species)
Elderberries are shrubs that prefer full sun, and are considered to be the easiest of all fruits to grow and care, and also possibly the most consistently productive. Extremely prolific, both the blossoms and berries have been used for centuries in cultures throughout the world for both medicinal and edible products including baked goods, cordials, jellies, tea and wine. The teas are also used in baths as an herbal treatment and the berries have also been used in dyes. Most recently, the elderberry has been explored and come to the forefront as a possible treatment for winter ailments, and the fruit is reported to be higher in vitamin C than oranges. As a nursery plant, the elderberry can be sold as a multi-purpose plant with many uses for both humans and as a wildlife sanctuary plant, as birds enjoy the berries, also.
The Pomegranate can be grown as an arching shrub or small tree. Although mostly adapted to desert climates, needing good drainage and hot summers to produce a crop of fruit, some growers sell them as potted porch plants to bring indoors to finish ripening. They thrive in USDA zones 4–10 but in cooler climates are brought inside to obtain the large ripened red fruits, which are juiced or eaten fresh in a very special manner. The seeds within each fruit are covered with sacks that are juicy, red and sweet, which are eaten and then the seeds are discarded. The trees are self- and insect-pollinated and are harvested usually starting early October. The cool fall nights help develop the bright color. The trees are thorny, and mature trees are reported to yield more than 15 tons of fruit per acre.
Paw Paws (Asimina triloba)
Paw paw varieties can grow as small tree to 10′ tall, with some native varieties reaching 40 feet or more. Their leaves are long and tropical looking. Native in much of the eastern United States, they are not well known in other parts of the country, although they grow and produce well in most of the nation, USDA zones 5–9, including the Pacific Northwest. The fruits are three to six inches long, oblong, and the pulp is described as tasting like vanilla custard. They are harvest when fruit color turns from green to yellow, and the soft fruit is most often eaten with a spoon, with the large seeds discarded. They grow naturally as an understory tree but can also grow in full sun, making them a possible secondary tree crop among other tree crops. In areas of much hot dry sun, the younger trees do better with partial shade. Fruits are harvested usually in late September and October.
Mayhaw (Crataegus aestivalis)
The Mayhaw, from the hawthorn family, is native to the United States and grows in USDA zones 6–9. Certain varieties of the mayhaw produce heavy crops of small red fruits, about ½” in diameter, that make delicious jelly, pies and juice. Growing only about 15 feet tall, they can tolerate wetter soils that other fruit trees, making them a possible sideline crop for marginal growing areas, although areas of late spring frosts can cut production because the tree blooms very early in spring.