I recently reviewed a book for Library Journal called The Fruitful City by Helena Moncrieff. While the focus is on urban food forests in Canadian cities, it holds true, I think, for most urban environments. It is not about the deliberate planting of fruit and nut tress in cities that is becoming almost a movement these days. Instead it is about the food that already exists — fruit and nut trees and berries that have been planted in public and private urban spaces. Often these food plants have been planted and cared for by earlier generations of immigrants bringing a piece of home with them. The sad thing is, we have become so disconnected from our food that after the original caretakers have passed on, the trees have been neglected and people don’t even know what they are.
Moncrieff came across a serviceberry in full fruit next to a subway entrance in Toronto and stopped to pick some into a bag she had in her pocket. A number of people stopped to ask her what she was doing, were those berries safe to eat? What were they? They aren’t poisonous? Others who have fruit trees growing in their yard don’t know what they are or if they do, they don’t know how to care for them or have time to harvest the fruit. As a result so much food goes to waste. Thankfully there are nonprofit organizations popping up that will help people identify their trees and will even harvest them for you and share a portion of the bounty with the picking volunteers also getting a portion of the harvest and the rest going to food shelters or homeless shelters.
I’ve been pretty lucky while growing up. My dad and grandparents kept a garden and fruit trees. We also went camping a lot for family vacations. I have wonderful memories of picking wild strawberries and wild blueberries. My freshman year of college my roommate and I went for a hike in the woods and came upon a blackberry thicket full of ripe berries. She didn’t know what they were but I did. We didn’t have anything to carry berries home with us so we went back the next day and we each picked a big bowl and shared them around the dorm. They were glorious!
My next door neighbor had a huge tart cherry tree for years. They never picked the fruit and the birds and squirrels would help themselves and there would be a mess of half-eaten cherries all over my yard. Finally we asked why they never picked the cherries. They were tart so had to be made into pie or jam and they couldn’t be bothered. We asked if they minded if we picked their tree and they said go ahead. By that time though the tree was in obvious decline and after a couple years it was dead. But before it died we planted bush cherries in our garden and two years ago we added a cherry tree of our own.
Last summer while out on a long bike ride I noticed for the first time how many elderberries were growing along the public wooded bike trail. Not until I planted my own elderberry did I even know what the shrubby tree looked like. My tree is still small and I haven’t gotten enough fruit on it to make jam. It is growing in the chicken garden and the Dashwoods discovered the berries last summer and ate every single one they could reach. While animals can eat elderberries fresh, humans cannot, we have to cook them. Next summer when the elderberries are ripe, I plan on carrying a bag with me when I go out on my bike so I can pick it full of elderberries. I am very much looking forward to doing this.
Rumor has it there are also serviceberries to be found. Come June when these berries are ripe, I plan on keeping an eye out for them. Have you ever had them? I got to try them for the first time last June when my little three-year-old shrub fruited for the first time. These you can eat right off the bush and wow, are they delicious! If you ever have a chance to try them, don’t pass it by!
Minneapolis has a boulevard tree planting program to make sure our streets are green and leafy. The city has planted a large number of gingko trees over the years. I keep looking for the fruit on the trees that line the cross street at the end of my block but have never found a single one. I learned recently the city only plants male trees so there is no messy fruit or notorious stink. This strikes me as such a waste, though I understand the homeowners might feel differently.
I’ve heard there is advocacy afoot though for the city to include fruit and nut trees as part of their planting scheme. They have already begun planting them in a number of parks around the city including one four blocks from my house. I am greatly looking forward to when they are big enough to begin producing. I wonder how many people will pick from them? It will be interesting to see what happens!