'Fruit Nut' Delves Into Fruity Alternatives

2/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Medlars. Gooseberries. Papaws.

These aren’t fruits you typically associate with Northeast or Mid-Atlantic orchards.

But for fruit expert Lee Reich, who is neither a farmer nor a gardener, but somewhere in between — a farmdener perhaps — there’s nothing wrong with a bit of variety.

“It’s good to have diversification,” Reich said.

Speaking on Feb. 8 at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Conference, Reich, who holds a doctorate in horticulture and has written several books on tree fruit, including “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden,” said growing several varieties of fruit makes sense, given the population market opportunities in the region.

He grows a few acres of trees on a small farm near New Paltz, N.Y.

Last season proved to be a disaster for Reich’s apples, which he lost due to an early spring thaw and subsequent freeze and frost cycles. But he said he at least had some fruit to market to the several farmers markets he sells to.

“Some years something happens to some, but you know, I get something every year,” he said.

Such fruits as papaws and Asian persimmons are varieties Reich has had a lot of success with.

Other fruits, such as the juneberry, have been more challenging.

Still, Reich thinks growers shouldn’t be afraid to try something new, even if it hasn’t worked for him. In some cases, those offbeat fruits might even be easier to grow and require less inputs than a typical apple or pear tree.

“Why grow something that takes so much pest control in a place that has so many markets?” he asked. “A lot of these can appeal in specialty markets and can bring in good money.”

Medlars reached their peak popularity in the Middle Ages but eventually dropped out of favor. The tree is small, between 8 and 10 feet tall, has nice flowering and provides a small fruit.

Reich said medlar trees require little, if any, pruning, but the fruits themselves, he said, are ugly and might be a turnoff to potential customers.

Cornelian cherries go back thousands of years and were popular in ancient Rome and Greece. The fruit needs cross pollination to grow, and Reich said they give off a strong tart flavor, which may be a turnoff for some. But like medlars, they require little pruning and don’t have pest problems.

Alpine strawberries are a much smaller version of the typical strawberry. And while Reich said these mini strawberries give off an intense flavor, a major drawback is their shelf life, which is only a day or two.

Some fruits, such as juneberry and lingonberry, may work in certain conditions but require a lot of maintenance.

Lingonberries, which are closely related to the cranberry and blueberry, are hard to get started and need acidic soils — pH between 4 and 5.5.

Reich said the plants need to be grown in soils with high organic matter but low fertility, and the soil must be consistently moist and have good aeration.

Black currants look similar to a blackberry but are “super high” in Vitamin C.

“This has a very distinct flavor that some people don’t like, but just about everybody likes them in juices and jams,” he said.

Varieties like the American persimmon, gumi and Nanking cherry, he said, may benefit from additional breeding, since very few varieties of each are currently available on the market.

Papaws are a fruit he’s had lots of success with. Its leaves are tropical looking and the fruit grows in clusters, much like bananas. “It’s often been called the poorman’s banana,’” he said, adding the taste is similar to a banana.

But they’re very cold hardy and Reich said the trees can survive temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero.

At farmers markets he sells to, including one at Union Square in New York City, he’s sold papaws for $6 a pound and they’ve become very popular with some buyers.

Reich said growers can learn about different fruit varieties by simply reading up on them or even going to a farmers market or store and seeing which varieties are popular with consumers.

In his case, it didn’t take much to get him into some of these exotic fruits.

“I’m totally a fruit nut. I like fruit, that’s why I got into it,” he said.

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