At one point Kansas was an exporter of fruits to the United States.
According to the Kansas Fruit Growers Association, the Kansas State Board of Agriculture reported 2,386,812 apple, 5,091,549 peach, and 935,897 cherry, pear, and plum trees in 1880. We can thank Prohibition and some extreme weather events for reducing fruit growers in Kansas. While we may never be the fruit producing state we once were, there is potential in Kansas for many fruit plants, trees, and shrubs to thrive.
When we think of fruits grown in Kansas, apples, strawberries, and blueberries come to mind – despite our incompatible soils for blueberries. Many native or adaptable fruits are forgotten all together. Although unusual, many of these fruits require less maintenance than traditionally grown fruits, yet offer a plentiful and delicious harvest.
The Juneberry or Serviceberry is a recognized ornamental tree, but it is usually not considered because of its edibility. The Amelanchier species is a shrub and tree species that produces blue, purple, red, or white fruits the size of blueberries in June and July. This fruit tastes more like a sweet cherry than a blueberry. Plants of this species are native to all states of the United States and form white clouds of flowers in spring. Juneberry plants are easy to grow and adaptable to cool and hot weather.
Juneberries tolerate partial shade and are adaptable to a variety of soil types. They are best planted in the fall, as Juneberries planted in the spring may not produce flowers or fruit for the first year. Shrub types are best for maximum fruit production and easy harvest. Many homeowners prefer the tree species as a front garden tree because of its beauty. While the trees are beautiful, their fruit is often lost to the birds, which can be an attractive feature to some. White berry trees are less desirable for birds.
K-State recommends two types of Juneberry for our region. The Allegheny Serviceberry grows less than 20 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide. This variety is more tree-shaped than most serviceberries. It has beautiful white clusters of flowers and beautiful orange color in autumn. The Spring Flurry Serviceberry is another small tree that grows to be less than 20 feet tall and 15 to 20 feet wide. It has a strong central leader with good, upright growth, beautiful clusters of white flowers, an orange color in the fall, and purple to blue edible fruits.
The pawpaw tree also comes from Kansas and has a unique tropical-tasting fruit. Pawpaw fruit resembles a fat banana, as large as 6 inches long and 3 inches wide. This bright green fruit also brings an exotic flavor to the plains of Kansas. The fruit is often described as a cross between a banana and a pineapple. With a pudding-like texture, it is best eaten raw and fresh.
When you plant a papaya tree, you are digging a hole only as deep as the root system, but two to three times as wide as any other tree. Just like with other trees, adding organic matter to this hole may be a good idea, but it can create a damp pot that drowns the tree. If your soils require organic matter (the paw prefers high organic matter), add organic matter to the entire area that the tree will be planted before digging the hole – at least 10 by 10 feet square. When you add 2 inches of organic matter to the surface of the soil and manipulate it, it creates an area of increased water penetration and high nutrient content for your tree to grow into, rather than a muddy pit.
A happy papaya has moderately acidic soils (pH 5.5-7.0) that drain well but remain moist. Mulch, stretching around the trunk for a 3-foot circle, will help maintain moisture without drowning the tree. Mulch also helps reduce weeds that are competing with the tree for moisture and nutrients. Pawpaws are undergrowth trees. Therefore, plant the tree in partial shade, especially in the first few years. Wind protection is also advisable as the large leaves make excellent sails in high winds in Kansas. Although some protection is required, the paw grows up to 20 feet tall and approximately 10 feet wide. So leave plenty of room for growth without hitting power lines or gutters.
These trees, like apples and pears, need to be pollinated in order to produce fruit. Three different varieties give the best results. For the beetles and flies that pollinate the paws, the trees need not be more than 30 feet apart for the fruit to thrive. Because of their fleshy roots, paws are best planted in spring, around April. Newly planted trees need to be well watered but not soaked.
Mulberries are another fruit shrub and tree native to Kansas. Mulberry fruits are shaped like a blackberry but can be white, purple, dark red, or black. Mulberries are wind pollinated, with some varieties having the ability to set fruit without pollination. Mulberry plants tolerate drought, pollution, and poor soil. Buds develop in late spring and are usually not or only moderately affected by the spring frost. Most varieties require full sun and at least 15 feet to spread.
Your berries can stain surfaces, so they should be planted away from sidewalks. As with Juneberries, birds love mulberries, but they produce so much fruit that birds typically can’t take it all for themselves. However, it’s a good idea to avoid planting mulberry plants near the parking lot of your car as the birds will mess up the berries.
If you haven’t had enough of unusual fruits, be sure to read next Saturday’s column where we review the merits of four other fruits.
Ariel Whitely-Noll is the horticultural agent for Shawnee County Research and Extension. She can be reached at email@example.com.