As part of my on-going explorations of botanical plant families, the list below focuses on fruit and nut trees (and shrubs and vines, etc). Despite trees being something neither beginning gardeners nor beginning farmers typically start with, these plant families are vital to consider in the long run if one is going to achieve biodiverse and ecological food production.
Fruits and nuts are largely perennials (ground cherries aside), so the relationships and inter-dependencies grow and deepen overtime. Starting an orchard (of any scale or diversity) may very well mean spending a few years improving the soil before the first sapling or shrub-let arrives. Once planted, a host of plant-friends and plant-neighbors are needed to establish the tree in a secure permaculture setting.
Three families dominate this category in the U.S.: citrus, roses, and walnuts.
Dominant Fruit Families
Roses: for the edibles garden or farmer, the rose family breaks into sections based on the arrangement of the seeds in the fruit. (That’s not quite how the scientists do it these days, but whatever. I value useful-at-home over precise.)
The leaves of rose family members have distinctive serrate margins. Not everything with this margin is a rose, but it’s a good clue.
The stone fruits: peaches, plums, cherries, and almonds.
Botanically, these fruits are “drupes” (drooops). These are not all the drupes out there- black haw viburnum (wild raisin), date palms, olives, coffee, mangoes, and even coconuts are all drupes- but the term ‘stone fruit’ is narrower and generally refers to drupes within the rose family.
The pomes: apples, pears, roses, crabapples, quince, photinia, firethorn, hawthorn, cotoneaster. Technically, serviceberries are pomes, but if you get’em a little too young they’ll feel more like small drupes in your mouth.
Try giving your writing coach/ teacher an apple and telling them it should count as an assignment: you are handing in a pome. (har har har)
The compound fruits: raspberries, blackberries, wineberries, strawberries, boysenberries. (Okay, some of those are “multiple fruits” but you there, in botany class, chill. It’s okay.)
Stone fruits, pomes, compound fruits… who cares? If you have an apple tree in your yard and it dies, do not replace it with another apple or a pear. Plant a plum instead. Although there are some diseases shared on the level of the family, this family is so big and so pervasive that for the purposes of disease control, you can often split the rose family into these three groups and be okay.
Citrus: lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, pomelos, kumquats, tangerines, rue, Sichuan pepper.
This family loves heat heat heat. I do not live where citrus can be grown outdoors, but I do want to have a lime tree and a Meyer lemon tree in big pots that I move in and out of the house each summer. I’ll write up something on integrating houseplants into your garden design at some point.
There’s also a fascinating history of orangeries and limonarias and similar attempts to bring citrus production further north. I’ll have to write about those adventures as well.
Families of Nuts
Juglans: Walnuts, pecans, hickories. Actually, just walnuts and hickories: pecans are a type of hickory nut. These are stately nut trees but “they” (mostly walnuts) have a bad habit of secreting an herbicide of sorts (juglone) into the soil, suppressing the growth of other plants nearby. While hickories can theoretically do this, I find hickory trees in forests all the time.
This juglone thing is part of why so many old homesteads planted a walnut tree in the front yard- kept the weeds down, made for an easy outdoor gathering spot. (Useful side note: juglone doesn’t do much against grass. If you’re of that independent ilk who doesn’t want a lawn, hackberries and sugarberries are a better choice for killing the grass family.)
In his outstanding book, Gaia’s Garden, Toby Hemenway suggests that although potatoes definitely won’t do well under a walnut, tomatoes and peppers seem to be less sensitive. He also recommends currants, goumi, mulberries, elderberries, black locusts, and acacias as good neighbors.
Oak family: beeches, oaks, filberts (hazelnuts), chestnuts. This family is less commonly considered a nut source, but for a long long time, acorn flour was a major source of protein in diets around the world. Acorns from the white oak group have less tannin and take less processing to taste good.
The American chestnut is finally making a comeback from their horrible bout first with chestnut blight and then with a panicked public. I highly recommend this tasty early winter treat.
Other favorite fruits
Ericaceae [air-uh-KAY-see-ee]: blueberries, bilberries, cranberries, huckleberries, rhododendrons, azaleas, mountain laurelsGive me air, lots of air, shade dappled skies up above, Don’t mulch me in!
This whole group likes shade in (at minimum) the hot part of the day, acidic soils, and good air circulation. Those mulch volcanoes that spring up each year? Bad hygiene for most plants and a sure fire way to kill this family in particular.
If the leaves start to turn chlorotic (yellow with green veins), add coffee grinds or tea leaves or other soil acidifiers to lower the pH.
Currants: Red currants, black currants, gooseberry. Note that those are all from the Ribes genus. There is a bush currant in Central and South America that is not at all related to the currants I am referencing here. There is also a currant bush in the dogbane family that is not the right plant either.
The currant family is very important to a fair number of butterflies, so consider planting one or two for them if you have space at all.
Also, Southern Hemisphere folks: this family is overwhelmingly down there. These currants and gooseberries are the northern exceptions. Anybody want to help out with some southern family members other gardeners might want to be aware of?
Honeysuckle: Elderberry jelly has held a revered status in my heart for well over a decade, so I had to at least give a passing nod here. More anon, no doubt.
Also worth knowing about: nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs
Legumes: you know the pole beans and sugar snap peas and clover, but did you know about the trees? Redbuds, Kentucky coffee tree, honey locust, black locust, yellowwood, mimosas… compare the seed pods on these plants, it’s the most obvious link.
The drought resistant goumi (Elaeagnus multiflora) is one of those rare non-legume nitrogen fixers, but please don’t confuse it with its cousin, the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). Autumn olive is, in the US, considered invasive (perhaps in part because of those drought-resistin’, poor soil amendin’ talents, eh?)
* The title of this article comes from a childhood memory of walking past a seafood restaurant whose window sign read “We serve shrimps, crabs, tall people, and nice people, too.” I thought it was hilarious, once my mother explained it.
Books referenced here:
Images used here come from:
- USDA (including the Agricultural Research Service)
- Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology at Iowa State University
- Food Under Foot
- Salt and Pepper
- and Wikimedia. (Love these folks.)