The small fruits with ancient origins present an excellent opportunity for organic cultivation in the family orchard. These are fruit trees that were once widely spread and found in the countryside but are now forgotten. Unfortunately, commercial dynamics have gradually led to the abandonment of these plants because they were less appealing to the broader consumer base. But why is it beneficial to cultivate these forgotten small fruits? There are multiple answers to this question. Firstly, these are good and healthy fruits with unique beneficial properties. Secondly, they are hardy trees, productive, resistant to climate fluctuations, pests, and diseases, making them easy to care for and perfect for cultivation, even in a few specimens, in the domestic orchard. Finally, let’s not forget the importance of the environmental biodiversity that these small fruit trees provide.
So, let’s see what these forgotten fruits are and what characteristics they possess.
What are these ancient small fruits?
We’ve chosen to consider 10 fruit species among the most beloved by enthusiasts of organic orchards. Specifically, we’re talking about:
The jujube (Ziziphus jujuba) is a small fruit capable of evoking childhood memories for those who lived in the countryside. Just think of its many local names, such as zizzola, zinzuli, scicula. It’s a hardy tree that doesn’t reach large dimensions (up to 5-6 meters in height at most) and loves poor, sunny soils. It withstands cold and drought well, so it can be cultivated in all Italian regions, although it thrives better in the Central-Southern areas. It’s easy to reproduce from seed or by transplanting rooted suckers. It blooms in early summer, and its small flowers are highly appreciated by bees. Where cultivated intensively, it produces a very prized honey.
The fruits ripen from late summer and are harvested when the skin starts to wrinkle. They are used fresh, as they are, or for making jams and fine liqueurs, like the famous jujube broth.
The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is a characteristic evergreen shrub or small tree with a twisted trunk that doesn’t grow very tall. It’s widespread in the Mediterranean area and can reach up to 5-6 meters in height. The strawberry tree prefers well-drained, acidic, and sandy soils. It’s resistant to cold and bears fruit even in poor conditions. Its flowers, similar to little bells, bloom in autumn and give rise to edible fruits that ripen the following year. The fruits are known for their bittersweet taste and are eaten fresh or used to make liqueurs, jams, and spirits, including the famous Portuguese “medronho”.
The cornel (Cornus mas) is a small fruit tree native to Europe. It has beautiful, yellow flowers that bloom in late winter or early spring before the leaves emerge. It can reach up to 5-6 meters in height and is appreciated for its ornamental value as well as its fruit. The cornel prefers fresh and fertile soils and can withstand temperatures below freezing. The fruit ripens in late summer or early autumn and is used for making jams, liqueurs, and syrups. It’s rich in vitamin C and antioxidants.
The sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is a small deciduous shrub that is particularly resistant to harsh environmental conditions, including cold, drought, and poor soils. It’s characterized by bright orange berries rich in vitamin C, omega fatty acids, and antioxidants. The fruits are sour and are used to make juices, jams, and sauces. The plant also has medicinal properties, and its oil is used in cosmetics and traditional medicine.
The service tree (Sorbus domestica) is a fruit tree that can reach up to 10-12 meters in height. It has white flowers that bloom in late spring, and its fruits, resembling small apples, ripen in autumn. They are edible but taste better after undergoing frost. The service tree prefers sunny locations and well-drained soils. Its fruits can be eaten fresh or used for making jams and liqueurs.
The quince (Cydonia oblonga) is a small fruit tree that reaches 3-5 meters in height. It’s known for its yellow, fragrant fruits that are hard and acidic when raw but become soft and flavorful when cooked. Quinces are used for making jams, jellies, and pastes and are rich in pectin. The tree prefers sunny positions and well-drained soils.
The common medlar (Mespilus germanica) is a small tree with a short trunk and a rounded crown. It’s appreciated for its ornamental value and for its fruits, which ripen in late autumn and resemble large rose hips. The medlar fruits are inedible when picked but become sweet and delicious when they “blet”, that is, when they undergo a process of softening and fermentation. They’re eaten fresh or used to make jams and compotes.
The azzeruolo (Crataegus azarolus) is a small tree that can reach 5-7 meters in height. It’s characterized by thorny branches and white flowers that bloom in spring. Its red fruits ripen in autumn and are edible but are usually quite astringent. They are used to make jams or are consumed after the first frosts.
The myrtle (Myrtus communis) is a small evergreen tree, particularly widespread in our central-southern regions. The plant has a shrub-bushy bearing and usually does not exceed 3-4 meters in height. Its strong propensity for suckering can be easily exploited for propagation. It also reproduces easily from seed or by cutting.
For good fruiting, it requires a mild climate, as it does not tolerate prolonged frosts. The fruits ripen in autumn and persist for a long time on the plant. It’s best to start harvesting myrtle berries when the small fruits on the tree begin to wither.
The most common use of the berries, with their typical violet color and waxy patina, is for the preparation of liqueurs (like these), among the most aromatic and fragrant available.
The carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua) is not a small fruit tree, but its cultivation has ancient roots, making it certainly an ancient fruit now forgotten. It’s a tree characterized by extreme longevity, surpassing 5 centuries. It reaches 10 meters in height, with a canopy that has an appreciable ornamental value. It has a powerful root system, enabling it to thrive even in the most difficult and arid soils. It doesn’t withstand continuous frost too well, which is why we find it spontaneous or cultivated especially in the central-southern regions. It’s a dioecious tree, so for fruiting, it requires the presence of both female and male plants. Reproduction occurs easily from seed or through grafting, although the onset of production is rather slow. The fruits, carobs, are legumes that once represented a fundamental element for rural economy, being excellent for the production of flours, usable in both human and animal diets.
When and How to Plant Ancient Small Fruits
After our review of forgotten small fruits to grow in the family orchard, we leave you with two additional and unmissable insights, on the ideal period for planting a tree and the best techniques for planting it.