Fancy fall fruits

We eat our share of muscadines, pawpaws and persimmons, but birds and mammals enjoy a bounty of native fall fruits that don’t appeal to our taste buds.  Even though we might not want them in our kitchens, many of them are fetching enough to earn a place in our gardens. 

My favorite fall fruit, from an aesthetic perspective, is hearts-a-burstin’ (Euonymus americanus).  The plant itself isn’t much to look at.  The green-stemmed shrubs are common throughout the Uwharries, but they fade into the background until their showy fruits dangle from the scraggly branches.  When ripe, the bumpy, dark-pink capsules split open to reveal shiny, bright-orange seeds.  The combination of color, texture and form ought to humble any artist or designer.  My niece Stella once taped a couple to a pair of clip-on earrings and wore them to a party.

The fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) rivals the dogwood as an ornamental.  In spring, the frothy white blooms of these small trees or shrubs glorify the banks of the Uwharrie River.  The leaves turn golden in fall.  Their blue-black fruits are about the size of raisins and hang in loose clusters like a bunch of grapes.  The fruits are technically known as drupes because the seeds are enclosed in a hard shell like a peach pit.

Jeff Michael, a Stanly County native and former director of The LandTrust for Central NC*, tells me there’s a large colony of fringe trees along a creek near Morrow Mountain State Park.  His mom calls them gramps’ graybeard, which she pronounces “grampses.”  Jeff likes to think that’s an old name from the heart of the Uwharries, the one his mom’s family brought with them when they moved from Eldorado at the turn of the century to find work in the mills.

To a botanist, fruits can be fleshy, like the ones above, or dry like nuts and seeds.  The velvety red clusters atop our local sumacs (Rhus sp.) are a good example. I’m always torn – do I leave them for the songbirds or cut them for a striking and long-lasting seasonal decoration?  Sumacs can sucker and take over a pampered flower bed, so grow them in a sunny location with dry, tight soil.  That said, the cultivar “Tiger Eye” has remained a well-behaved specimen in my sister’s tropical garden.  With its lemon-lime leaves and rosy stems, it looks right at home among the bananas, ginger lilies and cannas.

In Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, earthy Ruby has to school prissy Ada about the ways of nature.  She notes that sumac and dogwood leaves turn red ahead of other trees and shrubs.  While Ada chalks this up to chance, Ruby sees a purpose.  She speculates the color signals migratory birds to help them find ripe fruits in an unfamiliar forest.  In turn, the birds disperse the seeds.  I’m surprised Ruby didn’t also consider the role we play in that design.  The beauty of these plants and fruits might have inspired Ada to welcome them into her garden, benefitting the plants and wildlife alike.

It can be difficult to find these plants at typical garden centers, but please don’t take them from the wild.  I’ve found these and other native species through Niche Gardens near Chapel Hill (www.nichegardens.com)and Woodlanders in Aiken, SC (www.woodlanders.net).

-- Ruth Ann Grissom

-- Photos by Amy Grissom and  Ruth Ann Grissom

 * Currently director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute