MORE THAN 20 years ago, artists Allyson Levy and Scott Serrano started a botanical garden in the backyard of their Hudson Valley, New York, home. Today, the Hortus Arboretum and Botanical Gardens has grown to 11 acres of diverse collections.
One of the couple’s passions is unusual edibles, and now they’ve written a book about their favorites.
“Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts” (affiliate link) profiles 50 easy-to-grow selections, and we talked recently about a few of those that are also native plants (including pawpaw, above, persimmon, Aralia, Aronia and more).
Allyson and Scott are both visual artists, and their garden that today is Hortus Arboretum in Stone Ridge, N.Y., got its start as the inspiration and source of raw materials for their creative efforts. It’s grown into a non-profit organization that welcomes visitors.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of the book by commenting in the box at the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the July 4, 2022 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 or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
unusual native edibles, with hortus arboretum
Margaret Roach: So, my, oh my how your backyard has grown. So just before we get started, tell us briefly how this all happened [laughter].
Allyson Levy: Yeah. As we like to say, it started off more as a curiosity, and then we went down a rabbit hole and it’s become-
Scott Serrano: It became a dangerous obsession [laughter].
Allyson: I think for most gardeners, once they start learning about different plants, it really opens up a whole world. So even like with a focus on native plants, then you have native ornamentals and native edibles. And I think early on for us, we realized there were so many wonderful plants that we wanted to try growing. And then, as soon as we had put many of those in the ground, our interest became even more piqued about, “What else is out there? What else can we try growing?” And yeah, before you knew it, we had really just planted out our 3 acres.
And in 2009, we were fortunate enough to get land across the road, which was about 8 acres. And that was a full Southern site, so we put in a nut grove, and we put in European plums, and we put in a lot of magnolias and by viburnum collections. And actually recently we were able to just purchase 10 acres of land that’s adjacent to our field garden, so we now have 21 acres.
Margaret: Oh my goodness [laughter].
Allyson: Yeah. It’s pretty crazy, Margaret. But yeah, now it’s a whole other opportunity for planting when we get there. But we love all plants, but there has been all this interest in native plantings. And in our book, I’d say roughly about 20 are native trees, many that people don’t even realize are native.
Margaret: Yeah. 20 of the 50, yeah, that’s great. So, I thought it’d be fun to zero in on a handful of those native ones among the 50 species in the book called “Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts.” And even though some are among my favorites for wildlife and I have many, many plants of each of them for many decades, I didn’t know, for instance, that Aralia racemosa, a giant herbaceous perennial [above]—I knew it was native because I bought my first plant at a native plant sale a million years ago—but I didn’t know it was an edible ornamental that humans could nibble, too. So one of you tell me about Aralia racemosa, for instance, describe it and so forth.
Scott: Yeah. There’s a long tradition in Japanese culture for eating Aralia, and their Japanese Aralia is very close to ours, and they call it udo. Its shoots are eaten and boiled and cooked, and the berries taste similar. I’d say the American species is better.
To me, again, it’s a wild plant, so the berries are small and they’re in clusters. But to me, the berries [below] are very close to kind of a licorice-blackberry flavor. So if they’re cooked with a cooked and strained with a sweetener, they make a kind of a delicious, almost root beer-licorice flavored drink. It’s really a wonderful summer drink. I happen to love that plant. It’s a favorite.
And there’s a lot of sources that say that plant does well in part shade, and I stuck it in part shade. And unfortunately, because we are droughty toward the middle of summer, my plants kept dying away—going to sleep. So I kept digging them up and moving them into more and more shade. And the area that we were in just couldn’t sustain them. They would do beautifully till the middle of summer. And then they would go to sleep, and I wouldn’t get the berries.
So I finally dug them up and moved them to the middle of our forest, where I could watch them, and maybe hit them with a tiny bit of water once in a while if they’re not moist. And they’re flourishing now. But all those little places where I’ve dug them up and moved them, I left little tiny pieces of roots. And so they’ve resprouted, as an unintentional nursery, basically.
Margaret: Well, as I said, we should say to people, this is a giant herbaceous perennial. You would think it’s a shrub if you see it during the active season. Because I’m looking out the window at my two oldest plants, and they’re probably 25 or more years that I’ve had the species here.
It’s also a prolific self-seeder, so people have to know that if they’re going to use this plant, they’ve got to keep an eye on it and watch where it goes and make sure, because it is big and digging up a mature one out is not a small matter.
Allyson: But hopefully, people would get turned on to trying the berries, so that’s one way of keeping the plant in check.
Allyson: So you’re going in and enjoying a handful here, or you’re making a tea or a drink. It’s interesting to me that there aren’t that many plants that do so well in a full-shade site.
Margaret: Correct. Especially something that big looking, you would not think a herbaceous perennial would get to be… Some of mine are, I don’t know, 7 or 8 feet across and 5 feet tall.
Allyson: Yeah. Right. Yeah.
Margaret: Again, it looks like a shrub, but then it dies to the ground. Yeah.
Scott: The only Aralia in California, and I know this because I grew up in California, I dug up from a redwood area where my grandfather had put in a cabin. I dug up four or five plants, and those can get about nine or 10 feet tall.
Margaret: That’s Aralia californica?
Scott: Yes. The one in California. And it looks very similar to our native one.
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. So Aralia racemosa, and likewise, the chokeberry shrub, which I have both the red-fruited [Aronia arbutifolia] and the black-fruited ones [Aronia melanocarpa, above], and I have lots and lots of them because I’m a bird person, and so, I’ve always had a lot of them for birds. It piqued my interest that in your book that you mentioned that that fruit can be eaten, because oh boy, is that full of tannins [laughter], and oh boy, is that a bitter astringent, whoa!
Allyson: Yes. Yes. And hence it’s common name, right? Chokeberry means-
Margaret: Choke, baby [laughter].
Allyson: Right? Maybe in terms of marketing this for people who are interested in eating in their garden, this is not the right common name for it. But nevertheless, it’s one of those that I find the fruit, depending on the particular shrub, even if you had several of the black Aronia, if you had several of those, even the fruit from shrub to shrub, it tastes slightly different.
I have found that either drying them in a dehydrator, actually getting the sugars concentrated—because it does have a fairly good amount of sugars in the fruit itself—is one way to kind of tease out that really bitter astringent, tannic quality. But also, freezing the fruit also helps with that. I use it a lot in granola. I eat it out of hand. We traveled one time in-
Allyson: In Bali, and there was a-
Scott: A Swiss expat, who said, “Do you like Aronia?”
Allyson: We were like, “Oh.”
Scott: “Not really.” And he said, “Have you ever had it dried?” I think Aronia is a big thing in Europe.
Allyson: It’s huge in Europe, yeah.
Margaret: I think in the book you say Poland, for instance, that it’s actually popular.
Scott: Yes. Yeah.
Allyson: Exactly. Yeah.
Scott: If you go online and look in Poland under Aronia growers, there’s two or three that are… It’s a big, big business. Yes. Yeah.
Margaret: That’s so interesting. The other interesting thing about it is that just observing it over decades here in the garden, you won’t see any birds—they’ll go for the holly berries, the winter berries across the way. I have all these fruiting shrubs in the fall. And so, the Aronia fruit will just hang there. Nobody’s going to take it, because they know it’s not ready, so-
Scott: It’s not good.
Allyson: I know. I know. It’s that crazy? Yeah.
Margaret: It hangs on until late winter, and sometimes even in spring, it’s still there. And it’s dried, as you were saying, may be more palatable [laughter].
Allyson: Yeah, yeah.
Scott: Yeah. It’s like winterberry. The things that are left all the way through winter, it’s the last resort.
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So, yeah. Yeah. The different qualities of different fruits and the purposes that they then serve in the habitat are pretty fascinating.
Allyson: But it is a very useful shrub, in the sense that for people like yourself who are big birders, it’s great for wildlife. If they leave you anything, you have some to try out of hand. It’s also one of these really tough, adaptable shrubs, right? So you could pretty much put it anywhere.
Allyson: You could accidentally drive your car over it, and it would be fine, so I’m not specifically-
Margaret: We’re not recommending that, however, people [laughter].
Scott: Yes. Yeah.
Margaret: But I have it in shadyish areas. I have it in sunnier areas. And it has gorgeous fall color. Besides the fruits, the leaves can be a gorgeous fall color. So it has ornamental value, the little white flowers in spring attract pollinators. So it’s kind of a win-win plant, I think, for a low-care plant.
Allyson: I agree.
Scott: And there are cultivars which have improved fruit that have a little bit more sugar, ‘Nero’ and ‘Viking’ and some of the ones which have been selected for higher-quality fruit. And it’s European people, probably Polish, who have kind of chosen the ones that produce higher-quality fruit. So a lot of the ones that are on the market here have been selected, the ones that are selected.
Allyson: Based on that. Yeah.
Scott: There’s like a half a dozen American Aronia, the bush ones, the black ones [Aronia melanocarpa], for higher-quality fruit.
Allyson: But most people would never even see the fruit really, because it tends to be used in food production for blending in with other juices or others. Right? Because of its really high antioxidant properties. So people might have already tried Aronia without even knowing it.
Margaret: Right. So, what about the Amelanchier or the shad or serviceberries or whatever we want to call them? I’ve never eaten the fruit [above]. I always leave it for the cedar waxwings, who seem to somehow know to come to Margaret’s house the day that those are almost ripe. They don’t even let them get fully ripe, the cedar waxwings, because it’s like, I don’t know if they know that they’re going to all be gone if they don’t hurry [laughter].
Allyson: Yeah. No, you know what? You’re right on about that, in fact. When ours is in fruit, which isn’t every year for us, we have a cultivar called ‘Autumn Brilliance.’ What I find is the fruit will, as you said, it just is starting to show some color, and all of a sudden, if I’m not out there on a ladder picking for six hours, I won’t get any of the fruits, because the birds just know. But if you-
Margaret: It’s amazing.
Allyson: I know. It’s crazy. I would say the fruit, if you can try it in the future, it is so delicious. It’s like a slightly watery blueberry, but it got crossed with almond flavor, because the seed, which is edible, has almost a bitter almond flavor.
So in the past, when we’ve been fortunate enough to get a good harvest, we’ve made pies out of them, we eat them out of hand. And what’s nice is all different levels of ripening, they’re all good. So the reddish ones to the dark purple ones, they all have a very unique flavor.
Scott: Yeah. The reddish ones, to me, when they’re cooked like with muffins, they’ve almost had a kind of a cherry flavor, whereas when they darken up, they almost then take on a blueberry character. So you can eat them under-ripe, when the birds are starting to strip the bushes.
Margaret: Interesting. Interesting. Yeah. And that’s another great landscape plant because it has your-
Margaret: … super-early flowers.
Allyson: Beautiful flowers, and then the fall color, right?
Margaret: Fall color again. Yup. A beautiful structure. I think that the bark, it’s kind of a grayish, and their structure can be beautiful as well. So it’s not just for the production, whether for us or for the birds.
Allyson: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. And as you said, it goes by so many names.
Margaret: I know.
Allyson: And that’s because depending regionally where you are in North America. They’re very specific to different sites. So you can find a whole range of sizes to suit your backyard.
Margaret: Almost treelike, and some are quite much more dwarf, but some are almost treelike, really. Yeah.
Allyson: Right. And some are shrubs, like small shrubs almost.
Margaret: Yeah. Yes. But some are really big. And I see really old ones that are easily 15, maybe larger and as wide, and some that are more rounded and like a traditional shrub kind of a profile.
Scott: Yeah. The only warning I would put about the shrub, that it’s often said that a juneberry can grow in part shade and sun, which it can. But we have found that the bush forms, when they’re grown in part shade, they seem to be hit by disease a lot more.
I think the parts of the West that those are from, like Northern Canada, they want to be in open sunlight and get a lot of sunlight. I think they would be much more pest-resistant to rusts and fungus and things like that. And they would get better harvests, in terms of the shrubs, growing in full sun.
Margaret: Right. Right. My elderberries are blooming right now, as we speak. And that’s a plant that boy, it’s a no-brainer as far as it loves to grow. And yet, the productivity in terms of fruit yield and also the insect appeal during flowering time. So the elderberries, tell us about those.
Scott: I was just going to say, we have an elderberry bush growing in about the most abysmal conditions you can imagine [laughter].
Margaret: Mine is next to my compost heap in semi-shade. It’s so out of the way, nobody ever minds it. Nobody does anything to it. It’s crazy.
Scott: Yeah. Ours are in slightly, almost not quite swampy, but bad, heavy clay soil at the bottom of the hill, that I think a bird dropped a seedling, I don’t know, 30 years ago. And our bush is about 25 feet wide-
Allyson: Yeah, it’s really a tree, really.
Scott: … and 20 feet tall. It’s produced thousands and thousands of berries. And the birds live in it and we can get the fruit off of it. Yeah. It’s a great, adaptable plant.
Allyson: I would call it also really weedy in that sense. In a good way.
Margaret: Yes. Yes.
Allyson: Because a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. With the elderberries, people also can use the flowers, elderflowers, for food production as well. And for many years, I used to make a homemade wine using the flowers and then we have… Yeah. It’s very fragrant and floral, as you would expect. But if you don’t like to drink alcohol, it makes a great beverage just with a little bit of a sweetener.
Or if you have a crazy friend who likes to fry, my friend came over with… She took the-
Scott: Well, you have to understand, her friend is from Germany. And there’s a very traditional Northern German recipe.
Allyson: Right. Where they fry the flower fritters as a whole cluster.
Scott: In pancake batter, actually.
Allyson: Oh my goodness. You would think you’d miss that floral quality of the flowers [above], but you don’t. It’s right there. It’s delicious.
Scott: Kind of like an elderberry donut. You put on some powdered sugar. It was decadent, but very, very good.
Margaret: And that’s one, as you note in the book, that it’s really important to remember that all the green parts, including unripe fruit do have toxicity. So it’s not one that, like you were saying with the Amelanchier or with the shad or juneberry or whatever you want to call it, service-berry, blah, blah, blah [laughter], that we could maybe taste it a little early like the birds are, but with this one, we want to wait till full ripeness.
Allyson: And I actually would suggest, it’s okay to eat a couple out of hand.
Scott: The berries, the berries.
Allyson: The berries. But it would be the one fruit that if you were collecting en masse, I would really suggest cooking.
Margaret: Cooking. Yeah.
Allyson: Yeah. Because of-
Scott: It’s slightly toxic.
Margaret: Yeah, yeah.
Allyson: You’ll get a little bellyache.
Margaret: Yeah. So, I want to talk about a couple that I’ve never grown, pawpaw for instance, and persimmon, so whichever one you want to talk about first.
Scott: I love American persimmons [above]. It’s a favorite fruit of mine. American persimmons are not as sweet as Asian persimmons, but they make up for it by having a more complex flavor. To me, it’s sort of like butterscotch and molasses, the flavor. The fruit has to be dead ripe, which means it has to virtually fall off the tree.
Allyson: So here’s that astringency thing coming in again, right?
Scott: Otherwise they’re astringent.
Allyson: You’ll be like, “I’ll never want to try another one again. No, thank you.”
Scott: Yeah. So I usually go out in the morning and beat my dogs to our tree, and get the ones that have fallen onto the ground, and those are usually the sweetest. You let the tree kind of tell you which ones are ripe.
Again, persimmons are incredibly adaptable. We have horrible, bad clay soil with lots of rock, and our trees just don’t seem to care. They have a kind of a thug attitude. They just don’t mind wet, wet years. They don’t mind dry years. They don’t mind… Sometimes the leaves look a little scorched if there’s a long, long drought.
Allyson: Yeah. In summer, yeah.
Scott: But in maybe 18 years of growing those trees, they’ve never had any major pests, neither pawpaws, either.
Margaret: And shade, sun? How big does the tree get?
Scott: Sun best for fruit, but part shade is O.K. I have a couple that are tucked into a part shade. Get a self-fertile, reputable, grafted variety, that’s the one thing, because otherwise you may have separate male and female plants. You want to get… ‘Szukis’ is the one that Lee Reich really loves. We love ‘John Rick,’ which has really large, almost 2-inch fruit that’s very self-fertile. We have a big tree that gets beautiful two-inch kind of Halloween orange fruit that has like a molasses kind of butterscotch flavor that’s excellent.
Allyson: And that’s also a really highly ornamental… I’m really big on-
Scott: Yeah. Beautiful.
Allyson: I’m really trying to get people to look at edible plants as being highly ornamental as well, even if they never tried the fruit. And the fruit will often persist on the tree and not drop, and it’ll go through a frost. And when that happens, it does convert the sugars a bit, and the fruit will get a little bit darker and wrinkly. And my goodness, it becomes even sweeter. The caramelly flavor that it had when it was just dead ripe. It’s delicious.
Margaret: And so, the pawpaw, how about that? Trees, yeah.
Scott: Yeah. Pawpaws are really great, too. Again, the biggest thing about pawpaws, you need two to cross-pollinate. And pawpaws have deep tap roots, which means once you put them in the ground, you do not move them.
And the biggest thing that people have problems with is when pawpaws are young, they need shade, and when they’re older, they need full sun for best production [laughter]. So I think the easiest way to deal with that, which can be complicated, is to put them where you want them to be in full sun and put a tomato cage or an armature around them that has a shade-cloth canopy.
Margaret: Right. That’s a good idea. Yeah.
Scott: That they grow for maybe two or three seasons, and when they get about 4 feet, they’re usually ready for full sun.
Allyson: I think the thing also, Margaret, about pawpaws, is that they do take a while for them to get into maturity, to start bearing flowers, and then maybe slightly longer for the fruit to actually form and persist on the tree. But if you’re a gardener, you have some level of patience, right? And the fruit is… Have you had a pawpaw?
Allyson: They have this taste that’s very hard to describe because-
Margaret: It is hard to describe.
Allyson: … it covers a lot of different food flavors. It’s got that tropical, custardy, banana-y flavor with a little bit of mango in there as well.
Scott: And coconut, too. Yeah. For those who don’t know, those are in the custard apple family, and if you’ve ever had cherimoya and soursop, they’re from that family. The flowers look similar to those trees and some foliage, so it’s the one weird cousin that went out of the tropics and shot up through the Midwest and dead-ended in the Michigan Peninsula, basically.
Margaret: I see. So, in the last two minutes or so, I just want to hear more about visiting and Hortus Arboretum, and tell us a little bit, give us the pitch about the place, and when are you open? Do people make reservations and things like that, and how does it work?
Allyson: Sure. Yeah. So we’re located in Ulster County in the town of Stone Ridge. We are open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays, and people could visit our website to reserve their visit. It’s at hortusgardens.org.
And then, so we are a Level II arboretum, which basically means that most of our woody taxa is labeled using dog tags that give information about when we planted it. Was it a seed? Was it a cutting? And we also have educational signage throughout the gardens so that people can self-tour with a map and kind of get an idea about plants.
And we really use this space as an educational resource so that people can come and see what a mature pawpaw looks like, or what spikenard [Aralia racemosa] looks like. And that way to kind of inspire them to grow outside the box, to plant things that maybe they’re not familiar with.
And we do try and time different events, whether their talks or tours at the garden when fruit is happening. So many people know about gooseberries, for instance, but… They’re happening now, that’s why it came to mind, but have never tried one. So we want people to come and taste, and we feel like once they taste something, they’ll be hooked.
Margaret: And so, people can make a reservation on your website, too.
Margaret: For a morning or an afternoon session, is that how it usually works or something like that?
Allyson: Yes. Yes, It is. Yeah.
Margaret: O.K. Yeah. Well, it’s very exciting, to think that you started planting your backyard and now look what you’ve gone and done [laughter].
Allyson: Yes, exactly. Yes. Well put.
Scott: An out of control hobby.
Margaret: But I love it. Not that I have any plants or anything, or have a little bit of an issue with acquiring things. But yeah, I’m so glad to talk to you, and I know we’ll talk again soon.
Allyson: Oh, that’s wonderful. Thank you.
Scott: Thank you for having us on.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. 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 July 4, 2022 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).