Friday, April 5, 2013

The Beauty of a Small Fruit Tree

     Spring brings a good many changes to the landscape.  Grass begins to send new green shoots out through the dull tan winter cover, bulbs bloom, trees begin to sprout new green leaves and ornamental or small trees suddenly become covered with lovely delicate flowers.  Often those flowering trees are beautiful for a week or longer and then replace the flowers with green leaves and fade into the background to become an attraction one last time in the fall when their leaves turn color and fall off.  That does not have to be the case on your piece of ground.  You could choose to plant 'ornamental' trees that are also functional.  Why not plant small trees where you need them that also produce fruit.  You could still enjoy the spring blossoms and fall color, but you would also have the added attraction of fruit in the summer.
     When picking fruit trees, consider what you like to eat.  Although these trees will begin with small harvests, trees do tend to grow and you might find yourself with plenty of one kind of fruit.  Also consider your growing conditions, the shape of the tree as it matures and the amount of effort that tree might require from you to produce useable fruit.  Remember too, that fruit doesn't always have to look as perfect as that found in the grocery store to taste good and be useful.  That fruit looks good because of chemicals that you may not want to use.  Possible fruit tree choices for central North Carolina include apple, cherry, peach, fig and plum - to name a few.
     Apples and crabapples are both Malus genus and are actually only distinguished by the relative size of their fruit.  They produce a firm, rounded, sweet tasting fruit in the fall which is quite attractive as it mature adding an additional season of interest to the tree.  Apple trees have a rounded canopy that becomes more open with maturity.  They can range in mature size from eight to twenty five feet.  In the rose family, apple trees typically have delicate five-petaled flowers. 
Fig Tree in fruit
     The fig is native to the Mediterranean, but can be grown here in North Carolina.  It has large five-lobed leaves that provide a rough and interesting visual texture and a rounded canopy.  Typically figs grow between ten and thirty feet in height depending on the variety and require relatively fertile, well drained soil.  Unlike the other small fruit trees, figs to not bloom all at one time and do not bloom in the spring.  They bloom in the summer and flowers are relatively insignificant.  The fruit as it ripens into a deep maroon is really the show and they form and are available for harvest from mid-summer into the fall.  Figs also have a great deal of winter interest with their smooth gray elephant's hide looking bark.
     The final genus that I would like to present to you for consideration is Prunus.  Like apples, trees in this genus are in the rose family and thus have delicate five-petalled flowers.  They bloom in the spring with a showy display.  Trees in this genus that grow well in North Carolina are cherry, peach, nectarine and plum.  Apricot will also grow here with careful selection of a hardy variety, but like figs they originate in the Mediterranean.  In fact, as their scientific name - Prunus armeniaca - clearly states, they originated in ancient Armenia. 
     Cherry trees have an open vase shape with an interesting silvery textured bark.  They range in size from six feet in height to thirty five feet in height depending on the variety selected.  Fruit is small, ranging from bead sized to that of a diameter of a quarter.
     Peach and nectarine trees originated in China and South Asia.  They are closely related and therefore have similar characteristics.  They have a rounded open canopy and long narrow leaves.  Fruit on hybrid trees is fist sized and the trees reach fifteen to twenty feet at maturity.
    Plum trees have a broadly spreading rounded canopy and can reach twenty feet in mature height.  Many plum tree varieties have a purple tinge to their leaves which adds to their interest.  Fruit ripens from green into yellow or red and then into darker colors and adds to the summer interest.
Flowering Apricot trees
     Apricots have a broad spreading vase shape and will grow as small as four to eight feet in height for dwarf varieties to as large as twenty five feet in height for standard varieties.  Fruit is usually ripe in mid summer and does not ship well.  It does dry well though and that is the primary way to preserve the fruit for use later in the year.
     Many varieties of small or 'ornamental' fruit trees are available for growth in North Carolina.  Typically they need sunny, open sites with well-drained but fertile soils.  Plant them with their mature height and canopy width in mind so that they are not growing to a point where they are crowded.  Select the varieties that strike your fancy and wait to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

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