AT A RECENT PLANT SALE at Hollister House Garden in Connecticut, I stopped by the booth of Cricket Hill Garden, known for 30 years as producers of exceptional tree peonies and herbaceous peonies, too. But one row in their display didn’t look like peonies at all. I didn’t know what the plants were till I looked at the tags, which turned out to be unusual fruits like medlar and melonberry and pawpaw, for edible landscaping.
About 10 years ago, Dan Furman joined the nursery and mail-order operation his parents Kasha and David had started in 1989 in Connecticut to specialize in Chinese tree peonies, which are still a mainstay of the family business. Well, Dan brought with him a growing interest in edible ornamentals, he says, “to make landscapes more bountiful, not just beautiful.” And with lots of personal research and experimentation, he has added a great assortment of them to the Cricket Hill lineup. That’s Dan, below, in a recent video he did on Cricket Hill’s Instagram, praising Aronia fruit (chokeberry).
Read along as you listen to the September 16, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
dan’s edible landscaping walk oct. 12
DAN FURMAN will lead an edible-landscaping walk on October 12, 2019 from 10 AM to noon at Cricket Hill Garden in Thomaston, Connecticut. Spend a morning exploring the fruit and berry plantings around the nursery, where over the last decade they have added hundreds of native and exotic fruiting trees and shrubs in both orchard settings as well in more established landscapes. Highlights include pawpaw, persimmon, quince, medlar, Asian pear, mulberry, and elderberry. Learn about cultivar selection, site prep, planting and more. Tastings will be included if fruit is ripe! Get information about the edible landscaping walk and reserve a spot.
Margaret Roach: Welcome Dan. I’m so excited that I saw you at the booth the other day.
Daniel Furman: Yes. Thank you so much for having me, Margaret. I really appreciate it.
Margaret: Oh, it’s so fun because I had no idea and I feel so ignorant because I think of Cricket Hill as peonies. So I should, since I admitted that just again now and in the introduction, that I think of you as synonymous with fabulous peonies and the fall is sort of peak peony ordering and planting time. I was thinking maybe you have not only, I think your parents began with the tree types and then evolved to the herbaceous ones, but there’s that in-between kind to that I’m kind of interested in. Can you tell us a little bit about those?
Dan: Yes, so known as the intersectional, or pretty commonly in the trade as Itoh peonies.
Dan: Yes, and that is to commemorate Toichi Itoh, who was a Japanese nurseryman who was the first person to do the successful cross between the tree and herbaceous peony in the late forties. And kind of tragically, he actually died before he saw his first seedlings bloom.
Margaret: No, I didn’t know that. I had no idea.
Dan: Yes, so he passed away in the early fifties, and they didn’t bloom I think until the mid-fifties and so it was actually, I think his son-in-law or someone who was related to the nursery who introduced them first in Japan and then in in the U.S. They were kind of a sensation first of all, because they were yellow. And second of all, because they are these interesting crosses that have the flowers and leaf like a tree peony, but that green herbaceous stem that dies back in the fall.
Margaret: So you say they’re yellow.
Dan: That was the original. Yes.
Margaret: I have one called I think ‘Bartzella’–
Dan: Yes. Yes. [Above, ‘Bartzella.’]
Margaret: And then another one that’s a golden something. What are some of the other gold ones, I can’t remember.
Dan: Well there’s ‘Golden Crown,’ there’s ‘Oriental Gold.’ There’s … Yes.
Margaret: But when I look in your catalog … you have a mail-order operation, and do you do have some open days there where people come in?
Dan: Yes, oh yes. Definitely. In the spring we’re open basically like a regular garden center during the peony bloom and then throughout the summer and fall more limited hours.
Margaret: And so people come and shop. But when they look at the assortment, it’s not just yellow ones in these intersectionals now. [Above, ‘Cora Louise’ intersectional peony, bred by Roger Anderson.]
Dan: Yes. So there have been a couple of American breeders, and now a few in France and Belgium and Western Europe. It’s really some of the American breeders who have done the most to sort of advance these new intersectional hybrids, particularly a gentleman Roger Anderson from Wisconsin.
And so there’s some beautiful kind of peaches and rose and apricot. More kind of subtle tones, not just that really vibrant yellow. Some dark reds and even a white, which is a not very commonly available still.
What’s interesting with these intersectionals is they’ve been picked up by some of the really big nurseries like Monrovia, and it’s becoming the most commonly available peony at this point. I was just talking to a Dutch importer who sells them to Costco. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Oh my goodness.
Dan: And so they’re going to Costco. It’s kind of the mass-market peony.
Margaret: Oh my goodness. Because not very many … I mean, I’m not 200 years old yet, but not so many years ago, these were quite a rare thing.
Dan: So Roger Anderson who is the breeder, he opted not to patent them but rather sell the divisions for-
Margaret: Oops. [Laughter.]
Dan: Pretty exorbitant prices. So I know the ‘Bartzella’ when it was first introduced in the early nineties, it was like $850 for a little tiny division.
Dan: And so they’re tissue-cultured now. And so that’s why the volume. It’s because the nurseries are able to produce them.
Margaret: So reproduced in the laboratory, so to speak.
Dan: Yes. On the scale of tens of thousands.
Margaret: Yes. Oh my goodness. But you have some very unusual ones.
Dan: Yes. So our nursery is kind of more set up to do the niche things, things you can’t get at Home Depot or Costco.
Margaret: Yes. O.K., so peonies, and I’ll give people with the transcript of this show, I’ll give them the links and they can drool over both your tree peony assortment, which is quite amazing, and the herbaceous ones and then these intersectionals in between. But what I was so surprised, as I said in the introduction was that you had all these plants at your booth and I was like, “What’s a melonberry?” [Laughter.]
Dan: Yes, yes. I guess that’s the nice thing about having a small nursery is you can let it reflect your own idiosyncratic interests. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Uh-oh, are you a little idiosyncratic over there, Dan?
Dan: Yes, that’s really been my interest is expanding our offerings. Because really peonies I think of as it’s the opposite from a … It’s as far away as you could get from a practical, utilitarian plant. Even though it’s roots in China originally was as a medicinal plant as with many things in our gardens. But at this point it’s all about the show, and it really is spectacular. There’s nothing to compare to a peony blossom. But my interest is to make, like you said in the intro, these landscapes that are productive and fruitful as well as beautiful. So some of these unusual fruit trees really fit well into that scheme.
Margaret: So I bet that you and I have a friend in common in Lee Reich–
Margaret: Because Lee a million years ago wrote “Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention,” and then in more recent years has written another fruit book, and he’s been growing, in upstate New York, oddball fruits, but I assume like you have been-
Dan: Yes, he’s been a bit of a mentor towards me and I’m really grateful to have had been able to speak with him and he has a great collection of stuff. And so he shared some of his unusual varieties that I’ve been able to propagate.
Margaret: Yes. Well because I saw that you, for instance, offered the Nanking cherry, and that’s something he extols the virtues of. Tell us a little bit about that.
Dan: Yes, so the Prunus tomentosa, it’s got the sort of hairy leaves, hence the name, blooms very early. I guess forsythia and the Cornus mas, the Cornelian cherry, are some of the first things to bloom here. But then quickly followed by the Nanking cherry usually, in anywhere from late March to early April. A really nice, showy kind of Prunus bloom, followed by really delicious tart cherries that ripen right around the 4th of July. The birds love them. So you do have to be prepared to have some-
Dan: Sort of bird and chipmunk-
Margaret: Or share. [Laughter.]
Dan: …strategy, or just share. But the nice thing is they really are bushes. They only get about a 6-1/2 or 7 feet tall. So a lot easier to net than a full-size cherry tree.
Margaret: Yes. Well I mentioned one of the funniest tags that I turned over, I think, when I was there at the plant sale the other day was melonberry. And I was like, “What in the world?” [Laughter.] [Fruit detail above.]
Dan: Yes. So that is a plant that I definitely learned of from Lee Reich’s book.
Dan: So in English it’s called Che.
Margaret: Like Che Guevara? Like the-
Dan: Yes. Like-
Margaret: Che Guevara? [Laughter.]
Dan: The Cuban revolutionary. But that is actually just a mispronunciation of the Chinese name for it-
Dan: …which is Juh–
Dan: In Mandarin.
Margaret: I see.
Dan: Yes. And in China it’s been cultivated for several hundred years sort of for the fruit though I haven’t been able to find a ton of Chinese sources about use for the fruit, but mainly, because it’s a mulberry relative, it’s used as a feed stock for the silkworms.
Dan: And so I have a couple of varieties of this. The Latin for it is Cudrania, I believe is the genus. It may have just been changed recently.
Margaret: Oh, well don’t worry about that. [Laughter.]
Dan: And the species is really unpronounceable but people can look at it online.
Margaret: Yes, exactly.
Dan: But I have a couple of varieties of that that I actually graft onto Osage orange, which is another mulberry relative.
Margaret: That’s a surprise to me. I didn’t know that. Osage orange, is that Maclura? Is that what people-
Margaret: Yes. And so this is a cousin of that?
Margaret: That’s so funny. And so now you grafted onto that. So you use the rootstock of the Osage orange. And is this to make it more durable, or to keep it a certain size, or what’s the point of that?
Dan: Well, yes, I have grown the Che from cuttings also, but with less success. The grafting I’ve gotten down where it’s very successful, and it does seem to make a more treelike form, where if it’s on its own roots, it’s a little bit shrubbier. So some people might think of that as an advantage. Obviously you can always bury the graft union if you wanted the tree to a root on its own and get it on its own root.
Margaret: Yes, and there are these crazy-looking … I mean from the pictures, I didn’t see them in fruit—there are these crazy kind of fruits.
Dan: They look like little brains, sort of.
Margaret: They do. I was going to say I don’t know how to describe it but that’s a good one.
Dan: Yes. They have these funny little lobes to them. The one thing I will caution people is they really like a long, hot summer to ripen well, and so I have not actually successfully ripened them here in Northwestern Connecticut.
Margaret: So your customers who are succeeding with them are probably in a slightly-
Dan: Farther South, or growing them in hoop houses. So that’s something I’m going to try, is doing them in hoop houses.
Also many people, like with mulberries, the female trees will produce seedless fruit without pollination. The issue with that is that that fruit takes a longer season to ripen. So if you have pollinated fruit, it will ripen faster. So I’ve recently gotten some males to pollinate my females for use and see if that will shorten up the season.
Margaret: O.K. I saw that you have a number of kinds of pears, and one is called a Perry pear [above]. And I thought what? Again, I was like, “What is a Perry pear?” What does that mean?
Dan: Perry is the, I guess the old English word for just a cider made of pear juice, fermented pear juice.
Margaret: See I’m just not up with the drinking culture, I guess. I’ve got to get with it.
Dan: Well, you know in the Hudson Valley, it’s really-
Margaret: I know, I’ve got to get with it. [Laughter.]
Dan: …they’re putting in all these cider places. I think the Perry is only going to follow the cider.
Margaret: All right. So these are, these are pears not for eating out of hand, but for making cider.
Dan: Yes, they’re very, they’re small and they’re very astringent, very tannic. Not a ton of sugars, but a lot of them had really cool history, and they go back several hundred years, from England and Germany and France.
Margaret: I take it that you enjoy the research part of getting to know these fruits?
Dan: Yes, very much. That’s a big part of it for me is understanding the history behind them and just the stories. Because they’re food, and there are always just wonderful stories associated with that in the culture, and then the connections that I can make with customers. That’s always really fun. One of the things I love growing is the Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas.
Margaret: Oh yes, absolutely.
Dan: Yes. Planted as an ornamental here I think for quite a while, but also produces edible fruit, which is ripe right around now or a little bit earlier. And the fruit here is just kind of an afterthought, kind of like on the Kousa dogwood where it’s like, “Oh, it’s a nice show of fruit in the, in the fall.” But I have a friend who’s from Moldova, and her absolute favorite fruit are Cornelian cherries. [Laughter.] [Fruit details, above.]
Margaret: Isn’t that funny?
Dan: So it’s really good. It’s totally cultural, whatever it is that our tastes are sort of attuned to, and it’s expanding that palette I think is something that’s really fun. The palette of plants that we use, and also what we eat.
Margaret: I think I only have one or two Cornus mas in my garden and they’re very, very early, beautiful, puffy yellow blossoms. And I love gold, the color gold and not just in blossoms. So I have a gold-leaf one-
Dan: Oh yes.
Margaret: So I’m always buying gold-leaf plants. I’m not supposed to buy any more plants ever again. But when I saw on your listing that you have another favorite plant, elderberries, but you have a gold-leaf elderberry [above], I was like, “Oh no.”
Dan: [Laughter.] Deadly.
Margaret: Yes. So elderberries are another thing.
Dan: That is, yes. I think of them as wonderful plants because you can fit them into the landscape where a lot of other fruiting plants won’t necessarily do very well, sort of on the margins of a stream or a pond. They like that kind of very rich, moist, organic soil. And if you don’t get to harvesting the fruit, the birds just love it. A great nectar source for pollinators in June. And they just have this great habit about them. If you don’t prune them, they get up to over 10 feet tall and-
Margaret: As they are at Margaret’s? [Laughter.] Oops. I know. I know. And you can really cut them back hard, and they still do their thing.
Dan: Yes. Yes.
Margaret: But it’s kind of fabulous when they tower. I have them in an out-of-the-way spot, and so they’re in the background and they’re fine and the birds just love them.
Dan: One thing I found are the … I have customers, some European customers, they’re very insistent that they want the European species, Sambucus nigra. And there are some nice varieties of those. There’s a variegated leaf one, you know ornamental. And then there are those lace leaf ones, with the dark foliage. But I don’t know your experience; mine are I can grow them for four or five years and they get pretty big and then they just kick the bucket.
Margaret: Yes. I have the American.
Dan: Yes, yes. I would suggest that people stick with the American [Sambucus canadensis].
Margaret: Yes. yes, yes. Yes. Which is nice because again, it’s a native plant, and it’s great for pollinators. And it’s great for birds and small mammals later. So even if you don’t harvest it yourself and make whatever, make syrup or something like that.
Margaret: Yes. You have a number of things also that are tree-like some, again, speaking of native American, like a persimmon and a pawpaw. So tell us a little bit about those. These are more trees.
Dan: Yes. So both, pawpaws they’re small trees they can get up to, well if you don’t prune them, probably 30 feet. And the persimmons also over time will get to a pretty significant size. Yes. I mean, both were, I think in their season, eaten extensively by native Americans and the first European explorers. Certainly with the pawpaw and also persimmon were noted and enjoyed, and it’s just two of these native fruits that kind of fell off the radar for a couple hundred years in a way.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Just a couple of hundred.
Dan: Yes. But are both kind of having their moment, or a Renaissance or something right now.
Margaret: Yes, they’re “it” things. Yes.
Dan: And I think long overdue, certainly in the case of the pawpaw. There is, before we all stop eating peaches and just plant pawpaws everywhere, there is perhaps a link between a lot of consumption of pawpaw fruit, and it’s in the Annonaceae family, and a certain strain of Parkinson’s disease.
This is some new research, so a little bit of a cautionary note, but it would seem that you need to eat a lot of the fruit for there to be any negative effect.
Margaret: Right. And as a curiosity, as a sort of onesie or twosie in a garden. And that’s the largest fruit native to North America.
Margaret: Which is kind of fun in itself. And then the persimmons you have the, there’s the Asian persimmon, but there’s the American persimmon.
Dan: Yes. So I kind of first fell in love with the Asian persimmons during some traveling I did abroad, and then wanted to try growing those here. And unfortunately in Zone 6, they’re really don’t do very well, die back to the ground.
But the American persimmons are totally hardy here, and if anything I think more flavorful than the Asian persimmons. The issue is the fruit is just, it’s a little smaller.
But really a beautiful tree, really nice glossy foliage. It kind of has a dominant central leader if you don’t prune it, but you can get it by cutting out the leader, to get it to have a nice fuller form.
And you can, if you want to play a really cool plant prank on someone, you can give them a persimmon when it’s just starting to turn orange. But before the astringency has left it.
Dan: They will never forget that.
Margaret: Oooooh, I’m getting goosebumps. [Laughter.]
Dan: Yes I know. At the plant sale this past weekend, someone had PTSD from when they had a unripe persimmon like 10 years ago, and they were recounting how terrible it was.
Margaret: Oh my goodness. Oh, and then you have medlars as well [above]. Related to hawthorns, I think.
Dan: Hawthorn, quince, pear, yes.
Margaret: Right, right, right.
Dan: Yes, it’s in the Rose family. They were all the rage in Elizabethan England and just didn’t quite make the leap into modernity. But nice tree; doesn’t get any of the kind of foliar issues that a lot of your apples and pears will, because the fruit stays so hard so long into the season. It really doesn’t have any pest issues, so you don’t have the curculio and whatnot making holes in your fruit. It’s just a nice small tree, and you look at any of those still lifes from I guess the 16th century, the Dutch masters or whatever, where they would paint the basket of fruit and there’s always a medlar in there. [Laughter.]
Margaret: It’s funny. I think that’s one, I think there’s a word for … You said that this fruit stays hard for a long time and I think people who have them ripen them indoors maybe. And I think there’s a word for that.
Dan: I believe it’s blet. You blet the fruit. Yes.
Margaret: “I bletted the fruit.”
Dan: So basically, you let it rot until it’s edible.
Margaret: Indoors, until it’s edible.
Dan: Yes. They’re very good, though. They’re very sweet and I would liken them just to sort of like applesauce.
Margaret: Inside, once they’re ripe. Yes.
Dan: Once they’re soft, yes.
Margaret: So lots more things in the assortment at Cricket Hill. And we have a few minutes left and I want just to backtrack. So how big a place is it, the nursery?
Dan: The nursery? So the total property, we’re on 40 acres, and it’s mostly a sloped, swampy, rocky woodland. In my parents’ era, they cleared about 2 acres, left a lot of the big oaks and maples. So there’s a lot of high shade and that’s sort of our display garden with the peonies. And I’ve squeezed fruit trees here and there where I can over the last 10 years or so.
And then about eight years ago I cleared a quarter-acre and planted that with kind of my specimen planting of a lot of these fruit trees. So those are now my propagation source for them for the scion wood. And then we grow plants in containers as well as in the ground. So there’s a lot going on.
Margaret: So you research and you ferret out these things. If you’ve come upon a variety of something, where do you go to find it? Do you get it from one of those germplasm repositories that I’ve read about?
Dan: Yes, that has been a very good source. So incredibly, the USDA still maintains these living germplasm repositories. So they have varieties of all these different fruit trees that they maintain living specimens of-
Dan: …and anyone in the US can request propagation material during the winter and you will be sent, free of charge by the way, bud wood for grafting from the specimen trees. So it’s our government.
Margaret: Another benefit of paying your taxes.
Dan: Yes, exactly. Exactly. You may wonder where it all goes sometimes.
Margaret: Well I’m just, again, like I said at the beginning, I’m just so glad that we intersected at that pandemonium of that event the other day [laughter], and that you were there and that you had not just the peonies which were looking gorgeous in their bags already to go to their new homes, but also these crazy fruits. I think you have some events coming up as well.
Dan: Yes. So this, this weekend I have a peony propagation workshop where all aspects of making more peonies will be explained and demystified. And then on, I think it’s October 12th, I have an edible landscaping walk.
Margaret: Oh, cool.
Dan: We’re going to go through and taste some late season Asian pears and the medlars and some pawpaws. So that will be a lot of fun.
more from cricket hill
- The Cricket Hill website
- Unusual fruits at Cricket Hill (and the Oct. 12, 2019 edibles event)
- Tree peony assortment
- Intersectional peony assortment
- Herbaceous peony assortment
- Order the Cricket Hill catalog
- [Above, a toad who took up residence in a grow bag at Cricket Hill.]
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. 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 September 16, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).