In the summer of 2012, I began growing figs and became quickly bewildered by the possibilities – types, qualities, flavors, ripening times, names – no matter how much research I did. So I grew and ripened about 6 dozen fig varieties (along with many more synonyms), and did additional research, and eventually put together a fig color and flavor chart, consisting of 10 flavor categories, 5 for light figs and 5 for dark figs, along with several skin and pulp color diagrams (of figs I grew in zone 6, Appalachia).
Then I began growing more of other perennial fruits (and nuts) and in a somewhat similar way again became quickly baffled by what kinds of fruits were possible in zones 5 and 6 where I mainly grow. Cross-species now (let alone cross-variety as with figs) there was obviously more divergence in types, qualities, flavors, and ripening times of dozens of perennial fruits suitable for yards and orchards. So I began growing and ripening various species and again doing additional research. Recently, I put together the attached chart-in-progress of more than 40 viable fruit species and nearly a dozen nut species – all of it sorted coincidentally again into 10 groups, as with the fig chart.
These 50+ perennial hardy fruit and nut species are too diverse and complex to be organized simply by skin and pulp color and flavor as with the figs, so I was forced to a less tidy grouping to help illuminate the chaos. A quick glance at the chart may reveal some of the ordering principles of these hardy perennial orchard fruits and nuts. What mainly informs the structure of the 9 groupings of the fruits are both plant size and fruit size, and also flavor, looks, and texture of the various fruits. There is a rough ripening time order too.
Here then are the 9 fruit categories, detailed in a different order than on the chart in hopes of adding an additional perspective to the listing:
The vines group: Take perhaps the most distinct and obvious group, if not the easiest to work with, fruit vines. Grapes and hardy kiwi and arctic kiwi. The plants are very similar, being vines, especially compared to all the other orchard plants, and the fruits are somewhat similar too, in their own way. A small and easy group to think of, if not necessarily easy to grow.
The groundcovers group: Another more or less distinct group, often delicious if sometimes tart fruiting plants that basically hug the ground: strawberry, lingonberry, bearberry, nangoonberry, and wintergreen.
The trees group: A big group, all with big fruit (as compared to berries): apple, pear, plum, peach, apricot, pawpaw, fig, persimmon, medlar, quince. A hardy fruit orchard or yard of trees with relatively sizable fruits would consist of these species.
Along with these 3 divergent groups of perennial hardy fruits of vines, goundcovers, and trees may be added 6 groups of fruit bushes. 4 of these bush groups can be defined by fruits that in significant ways look and taste somewhat similar, even when they are not closely related. These 4 groups:
The Blueberry and Haskap and Juneberry group: Haskap is often described as an elongated blueberry, with more gelatinous flavor. Meanwhile, juneberry looks very similar to a blueberry but with more nutty flavor and crunch due to its tasty small seeds. So this should be easily understood as the blueberry and blueberry-like fruit group. It has good diversity with species that are not closely related yet the striking and surprising similarities make it unified in a memorable and useful way, with ripening times that span the vast majority of the growing season. While most juneberries grow to be full size trees (including the ones I’m most familiar with), even apart from pruning options, there is a high quality bush-size juneberry widely available, Regent, which helps to keep juneberry a good fit for the bush fruit group of blueberry with haskap.
The Cherry group: There are many orchard quality cherry species and seedlings available, even apart from often very good if tart wild cherries. There are Nanking cherry seedlings, pie cherry varieties, and sweet cherry varieties. Cornelian Cherry is actually a popular dogwood with fruit that looks and tastes somewhat like a cherry. While sweet cherries are typically grown on trees, and all these cherries can become small trees at least, bush production can be maintained with pruning. Or at least bushy small trees can be maintained with Cornelian Cherry and a compact sweet cherry variety like Stella.
The Mulberry and Brambles group: Mulberry fruit looks and tastes very similar to the fruit of brambles, if crossing a varied color spectrum in the case of brambles especially, given the reds, oranges, and purples to go with the black fruits. Small black mulberries and small blackberries and small black raspberries in particular look extremely similar to one another, and can taste a lot alike too. Like some cherries and juneberries, mulberries can become full-size trees, however also like cherries and juneberries, bush-size mulberries can be maintained, especially with pruning or obtaining a “weeping” tree. At Wikipedia, there’s noted a curious connection between brambles and mulberries that was long ago drawn by way of the old European Mulberry Bush nursery rhyme: “The rhyme was first recorded by James Orchard [!] Hallwell as an English children’s game in the mid-nineteenth century. He noted that there was a similar game with the lyrics “Here we go round the bramble bush”. The bramble bush may be an earlier version, possibly changed because of the difficulty of the alliteration, since mulberries do not grow on bushes.” The recognition of the similarities between mulberries and brambles must be as old as the species themselves. Che, aka Chinese mulberry, also fits well in this group.
The Ribes, Elder, and Eleagnus group: The tangy, zingy flavors and the near-perfect spheres and ovoids of the fruit of these species unite this group. While the Ribes are all closely related species – red and black currants, gooseberries, and their hybrid jostaberry – ribes are not closely related to elderberries, nor to the eleagnus species of goumi and autumnberry (autumn olive). But this group may be thought of as one for producing small, tangy to tart, wild-like grape-like gems of juice in near-perfect spherical and ovoid mini goblets. Unlike elderberry and the ribes fruits, goumi and autumnberry have a woody husk and seed inside, edible or spittable, per preference. Autumnberry is considered invasive and can become a big bush over time if not pruned, and many varieties of elderberry can grow into large bushes or even small trees if not pruned. The Ranch elderberry variety is an exception, readily remaining a smaller bush. Tangy, tiny, goblets of juice unify this group of ribes, elder, and eleagnus.
The Frost Fruit group: As it says on the chart, this group of hardy orchard bushes consists of late or very late ripening fruit that may sweeten upon or after frost: aronia, cranberry, seaberry, buffaloberry, hawthorn, barberry, and lemony quince. Otherwise, the fruit is generally tart and small, and ranging in color from the bright yellow and orange of seaberry to the deep black of aronia, to the reds and varied textures of hawthorn, buffaloberry, and barberry, to the rustic pale yellow and green of the low bush lemony quince.
So far, that makes 8 groups of hardy orchard fruits: 1) vines, 2) groundcovers, 3) trees, 4) blueberries (& haskap & juneberries), 5) cherries (& dogwood), 6) mulberries (& brambles), 7) ribes (& elders & eleagnus), and 8) frost fruits.
There’s one more group to account for, a species unto itself at this point: 9) goji. It’s in the nightshade family of tomatoes and peppers, and in fact tastes like a cross between a roma tomato and spicy pepper. If it dries on the bush it begins to taste very much like a craisin (that is, a dried cranberry-raisin cross). Fresh and plump, goji tastes more like a tiny perennial vegetable grown on a perennial woody bush than like a classic berry. It’s a remarkable fruit in many ways, but to call it a berry – it is often called goji berry – is misleading and can make anyone think poorly of its unusual veggie-like flavor. Typically goji needs to be dried to gain a classic berry flavor, and it does sometimes dry on the bush. So what group for goji if not its own? Bright red, goji is shaped like some bright blue small haskap fruits, with a tangy veggie rather than tangy berry edge. But it’s otherwise not at all like the blueberry, haskap, juneberry group. Bright red (a less common goji variety is bright yellow), goji might seem a fit for the cherry group, but other than the color has nothing in common. Goji is not a vine, not a tree with sizable fruit, not groundcover, and not particularly a frost or post frost fruit. Goji is nothing like a mulberry or bramble, and apart from being a bit zingy, nothing like the tangy goblet-shaped fruits of the ribes, elders, and eleagnus. Goji is distinctly its own being and so gets a group unto itself. Goji consists of both multiple varieties and closely related species which vary in notable ways.
The Nuts group. This group could be broken down considerably but is about the same size as the hardy tree fruit group. Hazelnut and chinquapin can be grown as large bushes or small trees and are likely to be the most precocious in bearing. The other nut trees may grow massive, though chestnut famously is afflicted with its life-shortening blight. Sunroot is edible as seed and tuber and is included in this listing of hardy fruit and nut species for its beauty and vigor and as a reminder of the existence of many perennial seed and vegetable plants that may be added to any perennial orchard.