oddball fruits from around the globe, with hortus arboretum

SOME OF THE many unusual fruits that Allyson Levy and Scott Serrano grow in their arboretum in the Hudson Valley of New York, like goji berries or maybe Schisandra (above), are ones you’re more likely to see on ingredient labels of health food store products than for sale in nurseries or growing in gardens. But grow them you can.

Allyson and Scott have a passion for fruit, which was the topic of their 2022 book, “Cold-Hardy Fruits And Nuts: 50 Easy-to-Grow Plants for the Organic Home Garden or Landscape” (affiliate link), including selections from around the world that they’ve had success with. They whetted my appetite for some delicious favorites of theirs.

The nonprofit Hortus Arboretum & Botanical Garden in Stone Ridge was once Allyson and Scott’s much smaller backyard, but now it’s 21 acres, with about 11 of those under cultivation. It’s also open to the public from 10-4 on weekends, from spring through mid-November.

I welcomed them back to the program to talk about one of their favorite topics, unusual fruit.

Plus: Enter to win a signed copy of their book, “Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts,” by commenting in the box at the bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the July 1, 2024 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

unusual fruit, with hortus arboretum



Margaret Roach: Hi there, you guys. How are you across the river [laughter]?

Scott Serrano: We’re fine.

Allyson Levy: Hi. Thank you for having us.

Margaret: Yes, sweltering, of course, but otherwise, O.K. Before we get started talking about the unusual fruit, just quickly give us the brief description of the arboretum, because it’s not just fruit and it’s not just things from around the world. It’s a lot of native things too, and it’s diverse. Tell us about some of the special collections and what it’s like, and why would I want to come visit? Tell me about it.

Scott: Sure.

Allyson: Well, we’d love for you to visit, and the reason why is because we have been collecting plants now for about, I’d say 24 years; 23, 24 years. And it did start off with many native selections, both ornamental as well as edible. And our passion for fruiting plants really started to grow so much so after we had put in highbush blueberry and thornless blackberry, and we put in pawpaws and persimmons right away.

And we started also looking at what other fruiting plants that we didn’t know about that we couldn’t just get at our local markets that we could grow in this…at that time it was a zone 5, maybe it was even 5B, if I remember correctly, type of climate. And that got us interested in Arctic kiwi, goji berry. We had gotten some quince and medlar. So we started really an eclectic gathering of fruiting plants, but at the same time, that didn’t stop us from wanting to put in magnolia trees, so we were collecting both native and non-native magnolia trees, and viburnums.

Scott: And cactuses.

Allyson: Hardy cactus.

Scott: Stewartia trees.

Allyson: Yeah, you know what? We fell in deep [laughter].

Margaret: Uh-oh. Uh-oh.

Allyson: And before we knew it, we were perusing back in the day paper catalogs, and it was a really great way to learn Latin, no matter how miserably I’ve been told I pronounce it. And learning about all the different types of genera and species that was out there that our local markets and nurseries just didn’t carry, people didn’t know about them.

Margaret: Right. We did a “New York Times” garden column recently together, and I think you told me it’s 25 years since you moved to Ulster County from San Francisco area. Is that right?

Allyson: Yeah.

Margaret: And now you have, in what used to be your little backyard [laughter], you’ve added more land and now you have 240 genera of plants accounted for. And you’re an official arboretum for a number of years, and you have visitors and so forth, and various events.

The last time we talked on the show was when your book first came out, and we talked about some of the native fruits you’re growing, and you just mentioned a couple of those, like pawpaws and American persimmons. And I think we talked about chokeberries and Juneberries and Amelanchier and stuff. But we took a different tack with the “New York Times” column because you just have some really unusual things that you’ve had success with and enjoy. And some of them are even quite ornamental, like chocolate berry. So want to give us the pitch on something like that? That’s a wacky one. I’d never heard of it.

Scott: Yeah, chocolate berry, which is Leycesteria formosa, can sometimes be a little dicey. It’s kind of zone 6, zone 7. We’re now considered zone 6. Because it’s hollow-stemmed, during the winter it dies back a little bit and you have to be careful about it because it can be killed to the ground. We often will leave it mulched for a long period of time until frost is over. It’s not going to feed a family, a large shrub produces berries [above] late in the season. But it is a wonderful plant in terms of just not only ornamental beauty, but the berries are really distinct.

I get bittersweet chocolate and blackberry, some people get wine or mocha or caramel from the flavor. It’s a really complex flavor. And the flowers are beautiful. They’re a mixture of color, kind of scarlet colored with white. And then-

Allyson: Yeah, the bracts of the plant are really very beautiful. And it’s actually been flowering now for the last two or three weeks, and will continue to flower through frost. It’s pretty rugged plant for producing very delicate berries. Because when they’re ripe, like super-ripe, and it has that really unusual flavor profile, they’re very squishy. So it’s not a marketable fruit, it’s one of those that we say you’re eating out of hand. But we have visitors to the garden and the fruit is ready to be tasted, people are just like, it’s very mind-blowing because you’re not prepared to have all these very distinct flavors happening at the same time. The flavor profile, it’s very special.

Margaret: Yeah. And I think you told me about a cultivar, a gold-leafed cultivar called ‘Golden Lanterns’ [below]. And boy, those bracts and so forth, and that fruit set off against the leaves, the yellow leaves, that’s pretty showy. So it has this potential for ornamentality and so forth, where it’s hardy, as you pointed out, Scott.

Scott: It was planted in Ireland, it became a nuisance plant. I think it’s considered invasive species there, but here we’ve never had that. Inside the greenhouse it’s thrown a few seedlings around, but outside the winter seems to keep it at bay and keep it controlled.

Margaret: And it’s a honeysuckle relative, as is one of the other ones that you told me about, the honeyberry [below]. Not the chocolate berry, but the honeyberry, or haskap. What’s that? Lonicera caerulea, I think.

Allyson: Yeah, yeah, well said. That’s actually, it’s been marketed now I’d say for at least a decade, although the fruit and plant itself has been around for quite some time. Haskaps often refers to the Japanese types. And honeyberry, my husband’s giving me a look like maybe-

Scott: Haskaps was more the Canadian.

Allyson: Maybe I’m wrong, I better read my book.

Scott: Haskaps is Canadian.

Allyson: It’s Canadian.

Margaret: It’s a good book, you should read it. Yeah [laughter].

Allyson: But to the point being, there’s actually two different types. There’s a type that is indigenous to North America, so it is a native, and then there are types that are more indigenous to the islands of Japan.

Scott: Japan. Yeah, mountains.

Margaret: Yeah. It’s one of those circumpolar species, which is really always very interesting when something is right there at the top of the globe, where it’s present in Asia and Europe and North America, but the topmost parts of those continents. Do you know what I mean? It’s fascinating. Yeah, so it’s one of those. I imagine that means it’s pretty damn hardy.

Allyson: Exactly. A lot of times certain varieties will be zone 2, zone 3, so it is a pretty rugged plant. And the ones that we have, we have both types. The ones that flower in, what is it, late March, early April?

Scott: Yeah, it’s one of the earliest flowering plants.

Allyson: They will withstand having snow on them. They can take some frost and they still will produce fruit, so that’s really nice to have.

Scott: Yeah, we’re almost in the warmest part of their growing area.

Margaret: Right. Right.

Scott: They’re more really arctic, which means we have them in full sun they get a little bit burned up and unhappy looking, and kind of sad and go to sleep in the middle of summer. But then they come back and bounce back and produce fruit. Probably where we are in zone 6, they would like to be maybe in a tad bit of shade. It’s where more in a place like Minnesota they like more full sunlight when they’re-

Margaret: Right. And the fruit is blue. It’s crazy looking, right?

Allyson: Yeah, it’s very blue. It’s blocky. Sometimes it’s being marketed as like a blocky or rectangular blueberry or tubular-

Scott: A tube-shaped blueberry.

Margaret: Yeah, it’s wacky. Yeah, it’s really wacky looking.

Allyson: And the different cultivars that are out there, there’s ‘Berry Blue’ and-

Scott: ‘Borealis.’

Allyson: Yeah. Right now it’s hard for us to differentiate the different profile flavors, but some are better than others. And I’ve seen, as this plant matures in the ground, the fruits are actually getting tastier, as maybe the carbohydrates are changing. I’m not a biologist, I’m just a gardener who spends a lot of time with plants and tasting and noticing things. And so that would be after the last four or five years I’ve noticed, because I was not…

To be honest with you, Margaret, I wasn’t the biggest fan, and I thought it was gimmicky that they were being sold as the first fruit, even before strawberries. And they’re probably fruitful at the same time strawberries are coming in, depending on where you site your strawberries. But I have now really begun to enjoy and appreciate them, and we just made a batch of jam, which was delicious.

Margaret: Oh, good. Oh, good.

Scott: It’s kind of a cherry-blueberry kind of flavor. Those two flavors combined. It’s a really wonderful jam.

Allyson: And just really quickly, why I think this is great for a backyard or front-yard gardener, or even a container, is because there’s been a lot of breeding happening up at the University of Saskatchewan. And the guy who’s been doing that, there’s so many different varieties out there right now. Not that they’re always at your local nursery, but there are some that don’t get any larger than maybe 3 feet, 2 to 3 feet. And then there are some that go 8 to 10 feet. I feel like there’s a place for these plants, even in an urban setting, because the leaves are very handsome, a beautiful green.

Scott: You only need to remember, you have to have a matching set. So you have-

Margaret: That bloom at the same time so that they can cross-pollinate. Right. Right.

Scott: And two genetically different plants, not two of the same.

Margaret: Right. Right.

Scott: So two cultivars that are early, or two different cultivars that are late.

Margaret: Yeah. Years ago I bought an Asian pear, an espalier, and I bought it for its ornamental aspect as a sculpture, so to speak, a living sculpture. I didn’t buy it for its fruit, although fruit is one of the ornamental moments in the life of that sculpture that goes up the back of half of my house. And it’s very large and fabulous, has four sets of arms now and is wonderful. And I’ve loved it for many, many, many years, and so forth. But the fruit just is watery and whatever. But a lot’s gone on with Asian pears. There’s a lot of choices now, and some of them are very delicious. Yes, that’s another possibility, isn’t it?

Scott: Yeah, definitely. The original term for Asian pear used to be sand pear [laughter], because people used to think it’s sand. And when you have an Asian pear, it’s the result of hundreds of years of crossbreeding. It’s very difficult to pin down what it is. And depending on which authority you ask and which arboretum and which pomologist, you’ll get different answers about where it’s from, and it’s a very complicated thing. But what we eat as Asian pears [in flower, above] is a result of hundreds of years of breeding, and some of them are quite extraordinary and delicious.

I was not a big fan of most Asian pears. And we have a triple-grafted tree, and a couple of the pear varieties on that, ‘Kosui’ is one of them, are some of the sweetest pears I’ve ever had. They’re quite wonderful. They also don’t seem to have all the disease problems of European pear.

Margaret: Right. Right.

Scott: We have an espaliered European pear, and we’ve never gotten a 100 percent problem-free harvest from that. Meaning, either insects kind of chew on the pears or, yeah, there are diseases. We haven’t quite figured it out. But the Asian pear seems to be much more problem-free. It doesn’t seem to get as many problems.

Allyson: Well, and the other thing is I think a lot of us are sometimes a little bit impatient. And so European pears, even in the best siting, can go anywhere from five to nine years until they start to fruit, depending on the size of the tree that you put in. Whereas we have found, even with some small Asian pears that we’ve put in, that they’re very precocious, and within three to five years they’re starting to churn out a nice harvest of fruit. So that that’s really nice.

Margaret: Yeah. With the Asian pears, like with the honeyberries that we were just talking about, we need two that have an overlapping bloom time. Two varieties with an overlapping bloom time. So you mentioned your multi-grafted tree, which has several kinds grafted onto the same tree. Yeah.

Scott: Yeah, it has ‘Chojuro,’ ‘Kosui,’ and then one other one on it.

Margaret: ‘Yongi,’ is that a word? You told me… Yeah. I wrote them down when you told me about them for the Times story because I was curious about if I could find any of those. That way, even in a small space, I’m going to get pollination and fruit on one tree. Right.

Allyson: Which is lovely. I would say there’s a couple of things. Those three types, and we have gone out to different Asian supermarkets. I’ve never seen those available. That’s the nice thing about growing different types, because the ones that you’re going to get at a market, at a supermarket-

Scott: Are usually the ‘Korean Giant,’ the large-size Korean variety.

Allyson: They’re easy to ship.

Scott: They have a hard skin that permits them to be shipped. They’re going to be a consistent size, too, that often makes a difference for shipping. When they look at a store, they want to see consistently shaped fruit. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s what they want, because of markets and stuff.

Margaret: Right. Right.

Scott: Wonderful things get overlooked.

Allyson: If you have already European, like an early flowering European pear in your garden already, you could get away with just one type of Asian pear, because they will pollinate one another.

Scott: Sometimes, yes.

Margaret: O.K.

Scott: Our multi-grafted tree is on… I think it’s on an ‘Anjou.’ And so we end up with a small sprinkling of ‘Anjou’ pears, excuse me, on one of the branches, because their pollination times overlaps with the Asian.

Margaret: Oh, interesting. Some of these other oddball things, like I’ve never grown a goji berry [laughter]. What the heck? And that’s sort of, it’s a little bit odd in its structure as well, right? I think you said, well, we did the Times story made me laugh, Allyson. I think you said, “It’s a vine disguised as a shrub, or a shrub that’s disguised as a vine. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.” [Laughter.]

Scott: I’d say the operative word is floppy.

Margaret: Floppy. It’s floppy, O.K.

Scott: It has a lot of the characteristics, to me, of forsythia. It flops down and then climbs up onto itself and uses itself as a scaffolding to become a large bush. There are people who pin it to fences and kind of tame it, or you put a spike in the ground to hold it up a little. We kept trying to prune it into shape, and at a certain point we found a rock ledge, like a stacked stone wall, and just let it crawl over that. And it seems to be fine that. It looks like a  forsythia bush.

Allyson: This goji has been grown for thousands and thousands of years in Asia, and typically that is how it was planted out in monasteries or in different areas. It would always be around a stone wall or stone setting so that it could drape over it. Again, I am really interested in growing fruits that you can’t necessarily just get at your local…no matter how good your co-op is, at your local co-op.

And goji is one of the ones where it’s very fruitful. It flowers and sets fruit all it’s starting in summer and we’ll go through a frost, so it’s nice to have both flowers and fruit going on. And I will admit, I am not a big fan of the fruit as a fresh eating out-of-hand thing. To me it’s, I hate to say it, like an insipid watery tomato. But when you dry the fruit, which is how you would find them in a health food store, they take on a licorice-

Scott: Cranberry.

Allyson: … cranberry flavor that is delicious, because you basically have removed that extra watery flavor. It is in the nightshade family, so that’s why it’s reminiscent of that kind of tomato-esque-

Margaret: Oh, I see. Yeah.

Scott: We have a Chinese-American gentleman who’s from China who visited our garden. He said when he got sick his mother used to take fresh goji berries and she would cook like a tomato soup with chicken stock. Because goji berries are extremely high in antioxidants and a lot of really good healthy things. So it is a traditional thing to make it like a chicken soup, to use it as a vegetable in a chicken soup.

Margaret: That’s funny. And it’s been in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Like you were saying, it’s been grown and cultivated for its medicinal qualities. Yeah, interesting.

Allyson: We had someone actually of Korean background who came to propagate, wanted some cuttings to propagate for her own, because her mom was eating goji to cure her eyesight because it was starting to flag.

Scott: Because it has carotene in it.

Allyson: Yeah. And that, she’s finding, is a very helpful thing.

Scott:  She wanted to grow her own. Yeah.

Margaret: Oh, interesting. We’re not giving any health recommendations here on the show.

Allyson: No, not at all. Not at all.

Margaret: But anecdotally, people are interested and people do their homework and they want to try things. And whatever makes you healthier, food has value. Yeah.

Allyson: Exactly. And truthfully, even if you never went and harvested any of the berries yourself, you’re feeding wildlife. It’s a beautiful ornamental shrub-vine [laughter]. Again, I’m really into how fruit also kind of… We forget about fruit as being decorative, and it definitely has that.

Margaret: Yeah. I want to try to get through a couple more, and one of the ones that was quite different… And by the way, I think the goji, that’s self-fruitful, right? Is that one that you don’t need-

Allyson: Yes, yes.

Margaret: So that’s good. That just takes care of itself, self-pollinates.

Scott: It also suckers and forms a colony eventually.

Margaret: One of the ones that also I hadn’t ever seen in real life was Schisandra [top of page], or the magnolia vine. And that’s another one that has a history in Chinese medical writing for thousands of years, and so forth. But that’s a little different. And it even goes in part shade, doesn’t it?

Allyson: Yeah. It actually needs to be in part shade. It could take some morning sun. But a hot part of the day, like now, it really appreciates being shaded over. It does need a support structure, but it’s not brutish. It’s not like it’s going to explode all over the place, it’s just having it upright so that the berries can form. And when we were doing research for the book, the thing that kept coming across was that this was initially brought in as a decorative vine. And that the little flowers, they’re small, but it got its common name, magnolia vine, because the flowers look like little magnolia flowers.

And they never thought about the fruit for medicinal or edible reasons. It was really just, they’re very handsome leaves. The type that we grow is called ‘Eastern Prince.’ It happens to be a self-fertile variety, and that is really nice to have. But if you didn’t care, because it’s dioecious, and you could find vines that have been sexed or get several vines to ensure that you’ll have some sort of pollination going on. It’s just a great vine that can cover a shady, even a metal fence if it’s in a shady spot. And personally, I love the fruits, I will eat them out of hand. They taste like very sharp lemon peel-

Scott: With a berry finish.

Allyson: … with a berry finish. And Scott will use the berries and make a drink out of it with a sweetener, which is lovely. And then-

Scott: Tastes close to strawberry lemonade.

Allyson: Yeah, really delicious. And then the dried berries, I dry the berries as well, and I can make a lovely tea with them. Like a hot tea, which is delicious. And I put them in granola snacks and that kind of thing. They’re wonderful. And those also, we’re not know espousing anything like health benefits on the show, but they have a lot there.

Scott: A history of that.

Allyson: Yeah, they’re like the top fundamental herbs in Chinese medicine.

Margaret: Right. Interesting.

Allyson: That has a lot of background.

Margaret: I just wanted to make sure we talked about che, or it’s a Maclura, in the genus Maclura. And when I first saw that, I thought, ugh, that must taste terrible. It must be like a rock. Because we have a Maclura, the Osage orange in this country, which is like a rock. And it smells delicious, but boy, I don’t think you’d want to eat it. But this is quite different, isn’t it?

Scott: Yeah. The Maclura from the United States, it has the texture of wood. [Laughter.] It’s very gigantic. Che, the name’s been changed four or five times. And I think maybe 10, 12 years ago somebody did an analysis of them and realized that they’re basically Osage orange. They’re an edible Chinese Osage orange.

Margaret: Right.

Scott: Produces a red berry that looks a little like a dogwood berry [above].

Allyson: Like a Cornus kousa.

Margaret: Yeah. That’s what the pictures that you showed me look like in the book. Yeah.

Scott: They’re hard and latexy. And then as the season goes on, they get softer, and they get deeper red. And by autumn, often if it starts to turn cold, some of the fruit will fall off. But often our tree has so many fruit on it, it doesn’t really matter. We have more than enough to drop off and to eat. And the fruit softens up into the autumn. And what you end up with is something to me that tastes like watermelon and fig, maybe. It’s related to fig and mulberry, and there’s a berry quality to it. Allyson gets lychee from it.

Margaret: Well, there’s so many good ones in the book, and of course there’s even more at the arboretum, along with lots and lots of other things. You have lots going on there. I just wanted to thank you again for making time. It was fun to talk to you, as always. And stay cool this summer, O.K.?

Allyson: Yes. Yeah, you as well. Thank you.

Margaret: Keep watering. Keep watering.

(All photos from Hortus Arboretum; portrait by Mia Allen.)

more from allyson and scott

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prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 15th year in March 2024. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 1, 2024 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Mary Yee says:

    I loved this article. Thank you! I grow pawpaws (A. triloba) in Minnesota and people tell me I am one of few people who get them to fruit. For people who want to grow them in cold climates, seed provenance is important. I bought seedlings grown from the most northerly pawpaw stand in Michigan.

  2. Patricia Sweeney says:

    Hi. I travel to Maine every summer and I bring back plants to try here in CT, to experiment mostly and with mixed results. For example, I have tried to grow Maine blueberries (fail), both red & purple elderberry (success!) I tried to make a little cranberry bog once (fail) but I do this stuff for curiosity – I’m an amateur. Please count me in for the draw!

  3. Frankie Elder says:

    I know it’s too late for my comment to be entered into the contest for a book but wanted to tell you about my not too odd tree because there’s quite a few in my region now. I live in Sidney, Vancouver Island and I have a fig tree rooted from a branch that I brought up from Washington state, my folks place in Sequim, Washington. My mom had always called it Peter’s honey fig tree. It is when ripe a golden pale green color on the outside and a most delicious purple inner fruit. The term ambrosia comes to mind whenever I bite into or Should I say, slurp up one of the fruits . As we have a very healthy population of raccoons and squirrels, who also love to devour this fruit, I’ve taken to bagging the first crop With bags made of shade cloth. They are translucent, versus the transparent commercial bags sold for fruits, such as apples. We have a lovely fruit tree nursery located nearby so figs are becoming very common as bcare citrys trees with our Mediterranean climate. Happy fruit growing all.!

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