Taming Wild Apples and Wild Berries

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Wild apples may be neglected orchard cultivars or descendants of domestic crab-apple stock, such as this winter-dormant sapling
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"Tamed" blackberries make for easy backyard pickings.
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Intensely flavored "field" strawberries can be readily transplanted. 
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Wild raspberries are so delicious that foragers will be tempted to transplant entire canes in hopes of a greater fruit yield. The plant, however, requires judicious pruning.

With rural land being gobbled up at a rapid rate, it’s
increasingly difficult to forage many once-common wild
delicacies. However, we’ve found that grafting a few scions
from an old roadside apple tree to commercial rootstocks
can insure our household against the awful possibility,
some autumn, that our nearby source of wild apples will be
bulldozed to make way for a new shopping mall. And our
transplanted backyard brambles eliminate long
expeditions to a favorite patch of wild berries, many of which used
to end with the discovery that the local bears had beaten
us to the crop!

Adaptable and Hardy

Most wild fruits and berries will thrive in home gardens,
since such varieties are typically very hardy. In fact, in
our section of Vermont–where winter temperatures
often reach 30 below–many domestic species can’t
survive, but transplanted native berries and
fruits, born and bred to withstand the rigorous weather,
are strong and productive.

However, before you dash off and invite wild edibles into
your yard, heed a word of warning. We’ve been
lucky, so far, to find healthy stock in our remote area,
but wild plants sometimes do harbor diseases …
many of which can attack and devastate tender,
virus-free commercial breeds.

So if you’re already raising fancy hybrid raspberries or
blackberries, it would be wise to plant their wild cousins
as far from the “commercials” as your space allows to
prevent possible infection by leaf curl, orange rust, or
verticillium wilt (the most common ailments of wild
brambles). Also, keep all your foraged bushes away from
tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes, and apple and maple
trees … and don’t place wild stock in soil
where those plants or trees have grown within the previous
two years, in case the former “residents” might have
harbored diseases that could damage your transplants.

There are three seasonal stages in taming wild fruits and
berries. First, as the fruit ripens (in its original
habitat), we mark the most productive and healthy plants or
trees with a stake or some bright ribbon tied to a branch
or cane. Then, later in the fall, we prepare the beds to
which the wild natives will be transplanted, working
organic matter into the soil, and correcting its pH balance
if necessary. And finally, the following spring, we go
forth with a shovel, burlap sacks, and anticipation, dig
up our prizes, and quickly place them in their new homes.

Succulent Strawberries

The perennial wild strawberry (genus Fragaria ) is
among the most delicious of all fruits (sample
the berries a season before transplanting, however, because
some wood strawberries– Fragaria vescaare
all but tasteless). The large, commercially grown hybrids
developed from native North American wildings have never
matched the delectable, aromatic, “strawberry” flavor of
most of their uncivilized ancestors.

Such plants are so vigorous, and transplant so well, that
it’s difficult to make a mistake with them! Simply fill
your strawberry bed with well-tilled, slightly sandy,
compost-enriched loam and adjust the pH range–if
necessary–to between 5.8 and 6.5. Remember, though,
that good air circulation and water drainage (the plants
can’t tolerate standing water) are more important
than either pH levels or soil composition.

In the early spring, before the plants have flowered, scoop
up the previously selected, shallow-rooted strawberry
crowns with a trowel–keeping plenty of soil around
the roots to lessen the shock of transplanting–and
set them out, leaving 12 inches between plants and three
feet between rows. (Be careful not to cover the
crowns with earth.) Then, when the flowers appear, pick
them off
for heavier fruit production the
following year. (Any runners that sprout after
August should also be snipped away.)

In order to meet their early ripening schedule, the plants
almost always put out blossoms before the last of spring’s
treacherous weather is over. Therefore, here in the North,
they must be planted on a slope above low-ground frost
pockets if they’re to give the highest possible yields.
Even so, if the thermometer takes a quixotic plunge, you
should cover the plants to protect their tender blossoms.

By late August, we have several rows of flourishing
dark-green plants, which promise us a good yield during the
summer to come. After the first few fall frosts, we mulch
the plants with straw or dry calamus or cattail leaves.
Then, come spring, the covering is removed and spread
between the rows, and–as we keep a careful
ear tuned to late frost reports–we start counting our
strawberry shortcakes.

Versatile Elderberries

One of the most useful woodland plants is the
elderberry … the flowers and fruits of which can be used
to make superb wine, jelly, fritters, pies, muffins,
pancakes, chutney, and a deliciously refreshing
non alcoholic drink. In the Northeast, several
kinds of elderberries grow wild, but the common elderberry
( Sambucus canadensis ) is the most familiar.

Each spring we dig up plants of a size we can handle and
pack the roots in moist mulch before we take them home. If
a bush is tall and rangy, we prune it back by half in the
field, and then plant it as we would a bare-rooted tree:
an inch deeper than it grew in the woods.

Fast-growing common elderberries enjoy damp habitats, and
tend to spread vigorously if not cut back. The best place
to transplant one is in a moist area near a compost heap,
for they’re reported to help speed the fermentation of
compost and produce a fine humus soil around their roots.

The easy-to-care-for wildings are prey to very few insects
and diseases, but over 43 species of birds place
elderberries high on their list of delicacies, so be
prepared to share–or to use protective nets–as
the clustered treats ripen.

Zesty Wild Apples

Wild apples might be either neglected old cultivars found
in abandoned “tame” orchards, or seedling crab apples long
since descended from domestic trees. Since apple seeds
don’t propagate true to type (it’s been computed that only
one of 10,000 kernels will produce an outstanding eating
apple), the majority of wild trees revert to the
characteristics of their ancient crab-stock ancestors,
producing small, tart fruits that make excellent pies,
jellies, and sauce and superior sweet (or
hard) cider.

Naturally seeded trees growing in the wild can be dug up
and transplanted to develop into mature specimens, or can
be used as rootstock after a year of adjustment to their
new locale. For either purpose, the transplanting must be
done while the trees are dormant.

It’s best to prepare roomy holes to receive the wild
seedlings, and replace any hardpan or poor earth with rich
topsoil. As soon as we dig up a wild tree, we immediately
wrap its roots in burlap or plastic and rush the sapling to
the already prepared planting site.

Once there, we snip off any shovel-frayed roots and spread
the rest out on the bottom layer of rich, well-worked
soil, positioning the tree about an inch deeper than it
grew in the wild. The earth is next built up around the
roots, then patted firm. The final layer of
dirt is tamped down, by foot, to make a two-inch-deep
water-holding depression all around the tree. After that,
each new transplant gets a bucket of water, which soaks the
earth and helps collapse any hidden air pockets.

Top-pruning is important, both to balance root loss and to
conserve the tree’s vigor during its period of adjustment,
so slice off–flush with the trunk–any crossed,
dead, and obviously weak or badly angled branches, prune
the remaining limbs, and cut the top halfway back.
Finally, paint the pruning wounds with a special tree
sealer or non-leaded paint.

If the weather is dry, water the trees every few days, but
don’t add any fertilizer during the first season: Strong
substances could injure trimmed and weak roots.

Don’t try a graft on a freshly planted seedling, either. It would probably fail, so it’s best to wait a year until
the tree has recovered from transplantation shock. Once
established, however, wild apple seedlings–because
they’re suited to your climate– can provide
especially hardy rootstock for your grafting experiments.
(All apples are related through the genus Malus ,
so all are graft-compatible.) Be sure, though–when
grafting–that the trees from which you choose scions
can also tolerate your region’s weather. It’s useless, for
example, to expect a warmth-loving Granny Smith scion to
survive a Vermont winter simply because it’s been grafted
onto a northern New England rootstock.

Dealing With Brambles

The fruiting canes of both raspberries and blackberries are
fast-growing biennial croppers, while their roots are
perennial. You’ll notice, however, that the two “relatives”
are seldom found together in the same bramble thicket.
Raspberries can be a host of anthracnose , you
see, a blight which isn’t fatal to the carrier, but which
might destroy nearby blackberries.

Both of these wild berry species should be dug up in the
spring, while still dormant. You ought to know, before you
set out, that sorting the primocanes (canes
produced during the previous season, which will
bear fruit during the coming summer) from the
floricanes (those that bore last season and will
soon be either dead or unproductive) takes a little time.
At first glance, they’ll all look much the same,
but–on closer inspection–you’ll discover that
the primocanes are smaller, and of a brighter color, than
are the floricanes. (It’s best to simply tag the primocanes
during the late summer berry season, prior to your planned
spring digging.)

Black and Red Beauties

Blackberries are the most complex of the Rubus
genus, and some 122 species have been recorded. A few of
these have small protective “prickles,” but the
most widely spread wild blackberry species in the Northeast
defends itself with fierce, stout thorns that can make
foraging something of a martyr’s task. In the orderly rows
of a transplanted wild blackberry patch, however,
the harvest is much less hazardous.

Cut your planted blackberry canes back to the roots. Allow about 30 inches between plants, and six to ten
feet between rows, to lessen the chance of fungus
contagion. Cultivate or use mulch to keep weeds down and
help the plants give higher yields.

Wild red raspberries can be substituted for blackberries in
almost any recipe and–when served fresh–can
turn an ordinary meal into a royal feast. It’s tempting to
take the entire raspberry cane in the hope of a greater
fruit reward, but the roots–which will be injured and
smaller after transplanting–can’t support the whole
cane (which would either become barren or die back). For
that reason, you should prune the canes to the first bud–or
to any bud that’s no more than six inches above ground
level–and plant them an inch deeper than they grew in
the wild.

Raspberries need frequent waterings in dry weather, and a
hay or grass-clipping mulch to keep the soil moist and
weeds in check.

Of course, adventurous gardeners who are interested in
experimenting with wild fruit can choose from many other
undomesticated edibles: Wild cherries, serviceberries,
blueberries, and more will gladly leave their woodland
homes for your farmstead fields. All they’ll ask in
return is a little care.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Needless to say, to-be-transplanted wild
fruits and berries should be dug
only from your
own acre age or from the property of a landowner who has
granted you permission. Furthermore, certain wild plants
may be in danger of extinction in your area: Consult your
state chapter of the American Federation of Garden Clubs
for information on local endangered species. Always be
careful not to disturb surrounding habitat while gathering
your transplants, and leave enough trees or
bushes in the wild
to make sure that the grove or
patch you have “borrowed” from will survive.

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