Edibility of Ornamental Tree Fruit

Ornamental trees, such as crabapples and purple-leaved plums, are planted in the home landscape for their flowers or colorful foliage. While chiefly ornamental, these trees also produce fruit resembling those on fruit trees. As the fruits mature, questions concerning their edibility often arise.

Fruit from ornamentals, such as crabapples and purple-leaved plums, are edible. However, the eating quality of some ornamental fruit is rather poor. These trees were selected for their ornamental characteristics rather than the eating quality of their fruit.

The crabapple (Malus spp.) is an example of a common ornamental that also produces edible fruit. Apples and crabapples are differentiated strictly on the size of their fruit. Crabapples are defined as those varieties with fruit 2 inches or less in diameter. Those with larger fruit are apples. At maturity, crabapple fruits vary from yellow to orange to bright red. The fruit of some crabapple varieties color and ripen in August, others mature in the fall. (The colorful, persistent fruit of many of the newer crabapple varieties are actually an important ornamental characteristic.) While all crabapple fruit can be used in making jellies and preserves, large-fruited varieties, such as Whitney and Chestnut, are the best.

Purple-leaved plums (Prunus cerasifera), such as Newport, Thundercloud, and Mount Saint Helens are planted in the home landscape for their white or pink flowers and purple foliage. In most years, ornamental plums produce little or no fruit as they bloom so early that pollination is generally poor. Occasionally, however, they produce a good crop of fruit. At maturity, the edible fruits are approximately 1 inch across and dark purple in color.

The new growth of Canada Red and Schubert chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) emerges green, but quickly turns to a maroon red. The small trees produce clusters of white flowers in spring followed by round, 1/3-inch diameter fruit. At maturity, the fruit are dark purple to black. Though bitter, the mature fruit can be used for jams, jellies, and juices. Autumn Blaze, Chanticleer, and Redspire are ornamental pears (Pyrus calleryana) grown for their glossy dark green foliage and small white flowers in early spring. Ornamental pears generally produce only small numbers of fruit. The inedible fruit are roundish, 1/3-inch across, and tan to brown in color.A word of caution. If you are uncertain of the identity of a tree or shrub, don t eat the fruit. It s better to be safe than sorry.

This article originally appeared in the 8/8/2003 issue.

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