What’s growing at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens – Native Fruit

What’s growing at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens – Native Fruit
By Melanie Priesnitz

One of the many wonderful things about summer in the Valley is the abundance of great locally-grown food. Much of the food grown here commercially is not native to the region. Most of the big crops have been introduced from other regions, and some never existed anywhere in the wild. Corn (Zea mays), for example, is said to have been developed approximately 7000 years ago in Mexico from a wild grass called teosinte. The corn that we cultivate and eat today has been in this region for approximately 400 years. Around the same time that corn was introduced to Nova Scotia we were also introduced to apples. It has been reported that the first apple trees (Malus pumila) were brought to Port Royal by French settlers in the early 1600s.

While many of our modern agricultural crops are ‘come from aways’ there are a handful of our treasured Annapolis Valley fruit crops that are native and have been growing wild in Nova Scotia since long before agriculture existed here. While we as hungry humans think that blueberries, raspberries and strawberries were put on this earth to give us eating pleasure, they have been living in these parts for way longer than us and are an important part of the forest ecosystem.

Nova Scotia has two native wild strawberries. The woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) is commonly found along banks and ravines and in the woods. Our other native strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) can be found in old fields and roadsides. Both are delicious to eat! Strawberries were gathered by Mi’kmaq people in our region to add to their seasonal diet. The word for strawberry in Mi’kmaq is atuomgomin (pronounced a·du·om·ko·min). The garden strawberry that most of us eat today is a hybrid that was cultivated in France in the 1700’s using the North American stock from F. Virginiana and breeding it with a strawberry from Chile called F. chiloensis. The latin name for the strawberry that we eat has a x in its name, indicating that It’s a hybrid: Fragaria × ananassa.

Nova Scotia has two common blueberry species that are native to our region and both are highly cultivated today. Long before we started cultivating blueberries they were an important food source for First Nations peoples. The Mi’kmaq word for blueberry juice is êp·ku·ma·na·bu (êp·ku·ma·na·bu). The most commonly cultivated of our blueberries is the highbush (Vaccinium corybosum). It has larger berries than the lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium), and is a taller shrub, making it easier for picking. Many cultivars of this plant have been created to produce larger fruit, however I still find the true wild blueberries to be the tastiest! A lesser known native blueberry is the velvet-leaf blueberry (Vaccinium myrtilloides), it grows in rocky barrens and is a distinctly hairy plant.

So, the next time you are in the mood for some truly local fruit, go for a walk in the woods and see if you can find some wild edibles. Of course, only eat fruit from plants you can clearly identify and leave plenty for wildlife. To view a large selection of native blueberries, visit the Walled Garden at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens.

Melanie Priesnitz Conservation Horticulturist

Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens
Acadia University