You’re probably already aware that the picture-perfect strawberries you’re buying at the supermarket—or even the farmers’ market, for that matter—are a far cry from the fruit’s origins. Through years of cultivation and select breeding, fruits and vegetables have been magically turned into bigger, sweeter, easier to grow versions of their former selves.
What you might not know is some of these fruits can be traced back to American roots (pun not intended), and many of these wild varieties still exist. The following fruits are just a few examples of fruits native to America, and are delicious just as they are—wild and free.
A number of grape varieties are native to the United States, including fox grapes, which are native to eastern United States, and muscadine grapes, which grow wild in the southeast. Muscadine were the first grape variety to be cultivated in the country, and early American visitors like Sir Walter Raleigh wrote about them growing abundantly all over the countryside. The grape can be used for juice, preserves, or eaten fresh, and is arguably best known for wine-making. Another well-known American fruit is the concord grape, which was developed as a hybrid in Concord, Massachusetts the mid-1800’s. The sweet and versatile grape didn’t evolve naturally, but was developed from native, wild varieties and cultivated in the U.S.
When European colonists arrived in America, they quickly began using cranberries as a food source. The super tart, red fruits were growing in peat bogs and marshes in the Northeast and Appalachia, and were named for the flower bud, which resembled the head of a crane. Believe it or not, they often ate the sour fruit raw, as well as making a sweetened sauce and mixing it into other dishes. Cranberries were frequently used to dye fabric, and to treat various ailments, but they weren’t cultivated until about 1820 in, you guessed it, Cape Cod.
The pawpaw is one of the few native American fruits that was never widely cultivated, and it’s likely one of the few that you’ve never tried. The tropical-like fruit grows in temperate climates, but is largely still experienced as a wild fruit. Thomas Jefferson is said to have loved them and grown the trees at Monticello, and Lewis and Clark ate them while journeying across the country. Slice open the greenish fruit to reveal yellow, soft flesh that tastes like mango and banana had a citrusy baby. Pawpaws can be eaten fresh, and their pulp is great for ice creams, baked goods, and even beer. A few of the highly perishable fruits have been popping up at farmers’ markets in northern and midwestern regions, and have a quick season in September.
The persimmons you see in the market are likely an Asian variety, even though the U.S. has it’s own persimmon variety: Diospyros virginiana. The fruit is native to southeastern North America, and was often eaten by Native Americans fresh or dried. Early settlers made them into tea for different ailments, and persimmon beer was popular in the 19th century. The green to bright orange fruits must ripen on the tree to be palatable, making them hard to transport for mass distribution. Once ripe, they have an apricot-like flavor that’s delicious as-is or in old-fashioned baked puddings. The trees can still be found in some adventurous gardeners’ backyards, and the fruit is a favorite treat for deer and other wildlife.
Mayhaws, also known as May hawthornes, are a small, round, reddish fruit that grow on thorny trees. The pretty, flowering plant is native to the swampy areas of Louisiana, and has recently been cultivated on a very small scale. Mayhaws ripen in early May (hence the name), and have a flavor reminiscent of apple and pear with a kick. While not especially delicious out-of-hand, mayhaws are considered by many to produce the best jelly in the world. Cities in Georgia, Louisiana, and other states hold annual spring mayhaw festivals.
Wild blueberries are one of the few wild fruits that are somewhat widely available. A smaller and more intense version of the modern, commercial variety, the wild berries grow as a highbush and lowbush. Native Americans taught settlers how to prepare various dishes with the berries, including drying them for preserving and combining with meat. Wild strawberries (not to be confused to the smaller, virtually flavorless wood strawberry) were also popular with Native Americans, and can still be found growing wild. They are much smaller than the giant strawberries you see at the supermarket, and tend to be sweeter. America has a number of other native berries, including salmonberries, juneberries/serviceberries, elderberries, and more.
Black cherry trees are often prized for their wood, but the fruit have a rich, wine-like taste that pairs perfectly with alcohol. The wood is great for using in plank cooking, and imparts a sweet, woody flavor to fish and meat. Even with a name like chokecherry, these cherries—the official state fruit of North Dakota—are often eaten raw. The sweetness and flavor of the fruit can vary from plant to plant, and can be used to make jams, jellies, and more. Most of the cherries we eat in America come from Europe and Asia, but native varieties are worth seeking out.