The climate in Missouri lends itself to growing a wide variety of trees, shrubs, vines, and perennials. Included in the long, diverse list of species that thrive in our four-season environment are a number of fruiting trees and shrubs. Some, such as apples, peaches, plums, etc., require diligent attention to pruning, disease management, fertility, pollination, and other cultural practices. Other fruit-bearing plants require little-to-no extra attention and will produce copious amounts of fleshy fruits perfect for baking, jams/jellies, or eating fresh. Among these is the serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), a medium-stature native tree or large shrub that truly is a multi-season woody plant. The early spring flowers – pure white panicles clustered at the branch tips – give way to small, ½” diameter berries that ripen from green to red to a dusky purple. When fully ripe (dusky purple), the taste of a serviceberry resembles that of a blueberry. Amelanchier berries can be eaten when they are red, though the taste is more tart than sweet. Serviceberries can be baked into pies, muffins, breads, tarts, and made into sweet jams or jellies – or even ice cream! The forager must be quick to recognize the ripening fruit, as these deliciously sweet berries are quickly consumed by Cedar Waxwing, Robins, Blue Jays, and other birds.
Currants (Ribes nigrum & Ribes rubrum) are a small-to-medium sized, very stately fruiting shrub. Growing 4-5’ tall and nearly as wide, currants are easily grown in Missouri because they are cold hardy and heat tolerant, with moderate drought tolerance. Small, nearly unnoticeable white flowers appear in mid-spring, giving way in June/July to fruits a little smaller than a grape but larger than a blueberry.
Both black and red currants are prized for their use in preserves, wines, and juices. In Missouri, currants will appreciate afternoon shade, especially in the heat of summer. The weak branches can be damaged in heavy winds and should be sited in an area protected from prevailing winds. Not as well liked by wildlife as the serviceberry, it is still best to harvest quickly after the fruits have ripened. Common practice calls for removal of three-year-old branches, allowing the younger, more vigorous shoots to produce fruit.
Gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa cultivars) is another fruiting shrub well-suited to our Missouri climate. Growing only to four feet tall and wide, Ribes uva-crispa shrubs are riddled with thorns (there are newer cultivars that are nearly or completely thornless). In late spring, clusters of hanging, grape-sized, reddish-purple, fleshy fruits adorn the branches. Having an interestingly tart flavor, a somewhat thick skin, and a sugar-sweet flesh, gooseberries are easily eaten fresh-picked and serve well in preserves and baked goods. They readily grow in full sun with adequate moisture. The gooseberry is a near pest-free shrub, though occasional leaf spots can be unsightly. In many states, certain Ribes species are restricted, due to their being a host for the white pine blister rust, an often fatal disease contracted by white pines (Pinus strobus). Missouri has no restrictions, but parts of the Eastern U.S. and Northwestern U.S. have very strict standards for planting some currant species.
Yet another easily grown, mass producer of edible fruit is the mulberry (Morus rubra). Perhaps best known for its very weedy tendencies, the red mulberry is a gnarly, wild-in-habit, small tree that frequently finds homes in sidewalk cracks, garden beds, and beneath bird feeders and perches. Morus rubra is a native species, fruiting heavily in late spring, covered in blackberry-like fruit, often in shades of green, red, and deep purple. Beloved by birds, the fruit can become messy, often staining driveways and other hardscapes. However, the fruit is deliciously sweet (when ripe (purple) – red berries are very sour) and produced is abundance. The short shelf life keeps mulberries from being sold in most stores, so be sure to use what’s harvested as quickly as possible. Because of the aggressive self-sowing, poor habit, and the unpredictable male/female propensity (Morus rubra can be separate male or female plants, or male and female within the same plant, and only females produce edible fruit), picking mulberries is best done on wild trees. Typically growing in fertile bottomlands, along woodland edges, fencerows, roads, and open fields, finding a red mulberry is a quick task – just don’t stand underneath for too long, as the birds will be filling up on these delectable fruits!
Compiled by Cara L. Crocker