Sadly-overlooked landscape-quality fruit trees

Published 12:00 pm Sunday, September 11, 2022

Just ate my day’s fill from one of the most sadly-overlooked landscape-quality fruit trees. Always amazed that everyone doesn’t grow it.

To set this up, I was raised in an odd Delta garden, right across the street from the house my parents built themselves. It was my horticulturist great-grandmother Pearl’s estate, a large landscape divided with hedges and rows of trees into several smaller gardens, including formal, cut flower, wildflower, herb, vegetable, and collected heirloom and native flowering shrubs. Her over 300 different daffodils and four dozen chrysanthemums, all labeled, took up sprawling raised beds.

I was raised thinking her metal bird sanctuary sign, oversized home-made concrete bird bath, and rain barrels, along with the small village of wooden buildings including a coal house, chicken house, tool shed, and waspy outhouse, were normal.

But the most amazing of all were her assorted fruit plants from which she put up the most amazing jellies, preserves, and chutneys. In addition to pears, plums, blueberries, muscadines, and beautyberries there were over a dozen pecan trees, under which I picked up nuts for a nickel a pound. And a fig tree, still alive, which I picked and helped put up over sixty jars of preserves one hot, non-airconditioned July. I was ten.

Then there were the weird ones. Pearl grew quince trees, cassava (also known as tapioca plant), a Japanese persimmon that was over half a century old when Katrina blew it over, native pawpaws, Chickasaw plums, and a big jujube tree.

I’m talking about the fruit tree, not the candy gumdrops originally flavored with jujube fruits in the 1700s. I’ve long wondered why everyone doesn’t know about this Mississippi-adapted yard tree, Zizyphus jujuba, and its vitamin- and fiber-rich fruits. Cultivated in the Tigris-Euphrates valley for over 11,000 years (well before apples), it is suspected to be the original Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the Old Testament. Starting in the 8th century its hard, oily wood was carved into the plates for the first books ever printed; it is still used in musical instruments.

The thorny but handsome, heat- and cold-tolerant trees have shiny leaves, tiny yellowish spring flowers, and small late summer fruits with a single kernel inside like cherries and peaches; when harvested just as their yellow-green skins start to get mottled with brown flecks, have texture and flavor similar to very large crabapples. Mississippi heirloom fruit grower Larry Stephenson, owner of Southern Cultured Orchard and Nursery near Coldwater, says they taste like apple-flavored Styrofoam until the trees get some age on them, but found that freezing and then thawing the fruits makes them sweeter, more like a date.

Bill Adams, an old friend and retired extension Horticulturist from Texas who has been growing many varieties of jujube for decades, says there are too many to really keep up with, but the most popular include Chico, Silverhill, Honey Jar, Sugarcane, Lang, and Li which is one of the largest fruits. Taylor Yowell, who grows and sells organic fruit, herb, and vegetable at the Jackson Farmers Market from his farm near Clinton (GardenFarmacyNursery.com), introduced me to a “found” variety from Yazoo City that is extra-large and tasty, named Yazoo Li.

I’m peeved when garden journalists like me write about plants that aren’t readily available, but I just had to share what I’ve known since childhood about a super hardy, superb yard tree – Pearl’s is still producing – that loads up every summer with nutritious fruits with thousands of years of history behind them.

So, here’s my shout-out for Larry and Taylor, helping get jujubes spread back around Mississippi.

 

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.