Sidewalk Fruit

Permaculture examples from my travels #2 

Of course, being me, one of the coolest things about my week in southern Spain was seeing the orange trees  lining the sidewalks. Although I didn’t get a decent picture myself, I was impressed by how ornamental they were while remaining productive – even though heavily pruned into tiny round poofs on top of lollipop sticks, many were still covered with fruit. (What is it with European cities and heavy pruning of street trees?? I realize if they didn’t pollard so heavily the canopies of trees this age would extend halfway through the second-story apartments, but it looks so silly!)

The U.S. would do really well to emulate this example. Nowadays, it’s much more likely to see a street named Mulberry, than a street planted with mulberries. While enlightened localities have street-tree planting programs that offer discounts for homeowners choosing to plant trees, the varieties offered are usually really restricted. When the trees do have some food value, it’s usually inadvertent (I was completely unaware of the wonderfulness of Linden till I read Toensmeier) or seen as annoying – resulting in the development of new ornamental crabapples that don’t fruit at all, or honey locusts with no pods. (Honey Locust used to be a great forage crop for large hoofed animals, along the lines of mesquite in the southwest, and could easily be again if we changed our priorities. Again like mesquite, the pods are reportedly tasty to humans too.)

Trees are vital parts of a successful city plan – they offer many useful outputs like shade, water management, air purification and beauty. But permaculture principles point out that just by careful choice of species we can achieve an additional output from the same space – food. How great would it be if we could supplement the high costs and low availability of fresh produce in the inner city, with fruiting plants located directly in the area they serve?

Of course, this is much easier said than done. As the trees mature, you need to have the time and energy to harvest the fruit; you need to know what to do with it once you’ve picked it; but almost most importantly nowadays, you have to WANT to do something with it.

To be fair, Spain does have a bit of an advantage due to their climate – citrus make ideal street fruit trees, as ripe fruit is retained on the tree for long periods of time with little loss in quality. You can harvest when convenient, without having to worry that a missed day or week will result in your entire crop splattered all over the ground. Compare that to the soft fruit commonly available in the colder parts of the northern hemisphere – such as the apple, most people’s first thought “fruit tree”, or even worse, the pear. While there are now ornamental crabapples which retain their fruit, the fruit quality is not as good as some other varieties and the small size adds a great deal of processing work.

The story of the mulberry illustrates the other issues with this happy idea. Lee Reich notes that the white mulberry, Morus alba, is the second most common weed tree in New York City (which means it can stand up to a lot of abuse). Mulberries are late bloomers, so are only rarely affected by frosts; and if your tree does lose its first crop of flowers to cold, it has the ability to set secondary buds to still get a partial crop. Henderson notes that mulberries ripen gradually, so you can harvest in small quantities over a period of time (giving you a chance to perfect your recipes before the next batch comes ripe.) You couldn’t really ask for anything more suited to home-scale use, in a fruit tree.

However, even back in 1962, Euell Gibbons noted a shift in popular opinion: “Recently I was helping a couple with three small children move into a new house, and remarked that the children would no doubt enjoy the ripening mulberries on a tree in their new yard. The mother looked horrified and said, ‘My children would never eat anything like that!’ ” Unfortunately this view has persisted. My first sight of a mulberry tree was in Chicago, during an undergrad internship program. Walking to the lab each morning I passed a beautiful mature mulberry in full fruit – production completely untouched, the sidewalk, street and cars underneath stained purple with mashed fruit.

Education would easily help with bringing fruit trees back to local consciousness – just pass around a copy of Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden open to the color plates, and watch everyone start drooling – but it might not be enough to open the door to including these trees in municipal forestry programs. In Tree People’s manual on starting your own urban forest program, they suggest working with community groups to pre-arrange future harvest of fruit trees. Most cities, if assured that the fruit will not become a nuisance, will be more open to their inclusion.

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