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Taming the wild world of `gypsy' fruits

By Eileen M. HasseSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 16, 1985



We used to call the fruits that grew alongside the road either ``gypsy'' or ``vagabond'' fruits. They were free for the taking since they grew on the road bank, which was public domain. Every year we stocked our shelves with jellies and jams and makings for pies from these varied fruits, saving the ``store bought'' fruits for sauce.

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Now most roadsides have been sprayed with chemicals to control or kill growth, and these fruits are no more. Farmers sometimes have access to them in their wood lots and along fence rows. The birds, however, tend to get the fruits before the farmer does.

But nursery and seed catalogs now offer most of these small fruits, often in dwarf varieties, so that you may grow them along your own hedgerow or as a boundary fence.

Elderberries can be planted near your garage. They are perennial and bear fruit profusely year after year. If birds are a problem, cover the berries with a sheet of cheesecloth as they begin to ripen.

Choke cherries are small cherries with large stones. The shrub can be pruned to make an attractive addition to landscaping.

The cherries will attract birds or you can cover them as they ripen and use them for pies, jams, and jellies alone or in combination with other fruits. The juice of choke cherries should be drained off promptly because the bitterness of the stones will affect their flavor.

Perhaps you hanker for the tart taste of plum ``butter.'' The old-fashioned wild plums now are available from seed and nursery houses, and you can grow them in your backyard.

Crab apples give you a small tree full of bloom and fragrance in your backyard. Delicious jellies can be made from these beautiful tiny apples.

The silvery-leafed buffalo berry shrub bears clusters of bright-red edible berries. It grows about 12 feet tall and makes a fine addition to a windbreak. The silver leaves and red berries create a vivid contrast as well as offering berries to can for sauce, jam, or jelly.

Compass cherries, a cross between red cherries and plums, grow on a plant about eight feet tall and can be eaten fresh, cooked, or in jams and jellies. These are bright red and fleshier than the choke cherries.

Sand cherries resemble choke cherries in color, but they are fleshier, too. The jet-black fruit is borne on five-foot bushes and can be eaten fresh or in sauce or pie. These, as well as other gypsy fruits, will grow almost anywhere. They require no pampering and survive in any type of soil.

Blueberry lovers will like June berries. Although they are not a true blueberry, the fruits can be used the same way. The shrub grows four to six feet high and matures rapidly, thus making it ideal in Northern climates.

June berries make an ideal hedge. The white flowers are spectacular in mid-May, followed by the clusters of fruit in June. These shrubs need cross-pollination and should be planted as a hedge or in groups.

Gooseberries now come in thornless varieties, making harvest easier. The tart fruits also make excellent sauces, pies, jellies, and jams. Some varieties turn pink when fully ripe; others remain green or yellow. Pixwell is one of the pinkest.

Remember currant jelly? You can recapture that memory by planting a few currant bushes near the gooseberries. The brilliant red of currant jelly is unsurpassed as a complement to most meats, and its tartness is a refreshing change from other fruits.

Currant bushes often bear the first year after planting, the fruits appearing in large clusters that are easy to pick. Wilder currants bear much larger fruit, but Red Lake is the variety with the deepest red color. Currants and gooseberries grow about five feet tall.

If you have room for a windbreak or a hedge, you have room for some of the gypsy fruits that folks used to gather along the roadsides. The varieties you buy from seed and nursery houses are much improved from the smaller fruits we once harvested for the taking. And for the small amount of trouble it takes to plant them, gypsy fruits yield many rewards.