Wild Fruits of Pennsylvania

Posted: April 13, 2015

Learn more about four of the wild fruits naturally occurring in Pennsylvania - wild apple, persimmon, pawpaw, and plum.

I am a grower of wild apples and other fruits, which is not totally easy. First, you need acreage and the best soil should be abandoned crop or pasture fields. Then let secondary plant succession take over. In about ten years, tree seedlings will be starting on the undisturbed land. How trees of all species get there is a study all of its own.

Soon, among the fiercely competitive regeneration, you will see apple trees (absent thorns) with their hairy buds. Apple trees at this stage are extremely vulnerable to vole and rabbit damage which, in snow-covered winters, prefer to eat plants from the rose family. They will girdle larger trees, or eat them right off if they are small. But the trees survive and sprout, and when they get to about four-inches caliper, they start sucker growth from both the root collar and the roots. Now the animals have something tender to eat and eventually leave the bark of the main stem untouched.

As competition becomes fiercer from the other seedlings and some vines, I come in and mow ten-foot circular clear spaces around each tree. I find it very interesting that deer will browse other trees but leave the tender apple branches untouched even after they droop almost to the ground. It is as if their mother tells them, “Just wait until later. When the apples come, you’ll see why I said: Don’t eat those branches!”

Once above the browse height, the crown spreads and the well branched trees are ready to bloom. The blooming trees are easy to see. On my eighteen acres, I have twelve mature wild apple (Malus pumilia) trees. As any pomologist knows, only nursery-grafted stock have the well-known names. As John Chapman was very aware, from one bag of apple seeds, many varieties are possible. “The Apples of New York” lists over 700 varieties (now considered cultivars) from “Admirable” to “Zurdel.” I made apple sauce from the fruit of one of my wild unnamed trees this year and it was delicious.

I learned about a second wild fruit at a Boy Scout Camporee where I was the edible wild foods expert. It was a tasty, sweet, delicious persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), which, though a more southern species, is found in the southern counties across Pennsylvania, and planted trees survive into the New England states. Later I discovered a collection of persimmons very close to home in Westmoreland County. They have very squarely chunky bark that is very unique. These trees were heavily laden with fruits (golden, one-inch diameter berries), and seeing them, I prepared for a gastronomical extravaganza. The first bite had unexpected consequences. Unless they are very ripe (or like pawpaws have fallen to the ground or experienced serious frost), they are astringently capable of turning your mouth inside-out. They leave you well-puckered for at least a half hour.

Golfers and wood techs are aware that persimmon wood makes great golf club heads and billiard cues due to the fine-grained, hardwood related to ebony. Since cattle and deer will not browse it, it forms large coppices from underground root suckers.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is also found in the southern half of Pennsylvania. It is identified by its chocolate brown, naked buds, and the broadly oval, entire-margined leaves. If you get to see it in bloom, the flowers have two sets of dark maroon/purple petals. The three on the outside are longer than the inside set of three. The tree grows best along rivers, woodland streams, or in wet places on the steep stony sides of the Loyalhanna Creek gorge (near Ligonier). This species also forms thick to scattered coppices and is the food plant for the exotically elusive and beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly.

To eat this oblong (four- to five-inch) berry, you must wait until it falls from the tree (“Picking up pawpaws, put ‘em in a basket…”). When the outer green cover turns gray brown, it must be eaten or it will quickly decay. Pawpaws do not store well. Taste is a sweet/soft combination of a banana, custard apple, and parson brown orange. They lend themselves to puddings and custard-like desserts, but the three or four large bean-like seeds need to be extracted.

Last but not least are the American plum (Prunus americana), and, if you can find it, the Allegheny plum (Prunus alleghaniensis). Plums have a single seed and the rather small trees are not exciting to find. I have seen them ignored and plowed out to make parking places. In bloom the flowers are pure white, but the plums quickly drop or are eaten. The Allegheny plum is considered rare, and I have only seen one in Centre County on a stony game lands site. The leaves are acuminate (come to a long point). American plum comes suddenly to that point and Allegheny has a long taper from the base. The flower petals of American are eight millimeters, while the delicate five petals of the Allegheny plum are fifteen millimeters. Better carry your scale along with your hand lens!

Prepared by William C. Paxton, Landscape Architect and Consulting Forester