Familiar for its race horses, delicious fried chicken and bluegrass music, Kentucky is also the home of a wide variety of wild fruit trees that once provided Native Americans with nourishment and medicine. Many wild fruit trees bloom profusely in the spring, making them desirable additions to ornamental gardens. Although fruits from these trees may have fallen from popular favor over the years, their taste and nutritive value deserve a second look.
Southeastern Kentucky's Cherokee Indians relied on the paw paw--America's largest edible fruit--as a dietary staple. The trees' fibrous inner bark became their rope.This highly useful tree grows from 10 to 40 feet high, producing small deep purple flowers in early spring before its leaves emerge.
Its yellow or brown mango-shaped fruit appears between August and October. The fruit’s custard-like yellow pulp tastes similar to papaya. It’s an excellent source of potassium, niacin and Vitamin C, say Snake C. Jones and Desmond Layne of the Kentucky State University Extension. Paw paw leaves turn yellow in the fall.
Plant paw paw trees in pairs to ensure cross-pollination. They prefer moist slightly acidic well-drained soil and require regular watering. Plant seeds in the fall in shady locations and transplant seedlings when they are still small.
Native Americans and settlers throughout the Appalachians used wild black cherry (prunus serotina) inner bark as a sedative and cough remedy. Cabinet, furniture and toy-makers prize the tree's wood. Wild cherry fruit is used in jelly, syrup and pies, and to make wine. They're a good food source not only for people, but for birds, raccoons, black bears and several other wildlife species.
The trees can grow to 100 feet, producing 4- to 6-inch spikes of densely packed white flowers in May and June and black, berry-like fruit between August and October. They need full sun and well-drained soil, and begin producing fruit after 10 years. Maximum seed production occurs in trees 30 to 100 years old. Seeds, twigs and wilted leaves of this tree are toxic if ingested.
Kentucky's wild American plum tree's historical uses have been in windbreaks and as a food source for both humans and wildlife. Native Americans, says the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, continue to use it for medicinal purposes. Its thorns make it a useful cover for wildlife and discourage trespassers.
American plum can grow to 70 feet, producing dense clusters of fragrant white flowers in the spring and smooth shiny red fruit in late summer or early fall. The leaves become yellow or red in autumn. The fruit is edible straight off the tree, in preserves and pies, or dried to make fruit leather.
American plum likes full sun or partial shade and moist loamy soil. Its shallow spreading root system makes it effective for erosion control. Plant seeds taken from ripe fruit in the fall.