The Fruit of Fall
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
The imagery of fall and the coming winter is based around decline and dormancy. One of the sweet surprises of the season is coming across plants full of vibrant fruit. While most plants are done spending energy in preparation of harsh winter weather, some plants bring diversity to our landscape by producing fruit at an unlikely time. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will highlight some of the plants growing in our landscape that provide a lovely contrast of color amidst a drab background.
One of my favorite trees throughout the forests of Wintergreen is hawthorn. This member of the rose family is best known for its lovely white flowers and their gigantic thorns. Their red, edible fruit matures in early to mid-fall. This small tree produces robust amounts of berries beloved by animals and humans alike. The nutritious, tart berry is packed with nutrients and has been used to treat medical issues such as heart disease and kidney problems. Besides being used for medicinal purposes, it can be made into jam, juice, or baked into pies. A much-anticipated backyard tradition in my backyard is the yearly appearance of a flock of cedar waxwing descending upon my hawthorn to devour the berries stuck on the branches long into winter. This tree is plentiful along the Old Appalachian Trail along with many other Wintergreen trails.
Winterberry is a deciduous holly that brightens the fall and winter landscape. This shrub produces a bountiful crop of red berries that stay on the plant long after the leaves turn yellow and fall off. This plant is native from Nova Scotia south to Florida and west all the way to Missouri. A wide variety of species use winterberry as a food source. Many birds such as robins, cedar waxwings, and woodpeckers find the red fruit irresistible. Many mammals feed on the berries including squirrels, rabbits, and fox. This plant prefers moist soils and can be found in mass along the Allen Creek Nature Preserve, creating a winter birding paradise.
One of the sweetest sights of late fall and winter is a persimmon tree laden with fruit. These trees grow to 60 ft and have a very unique, thick, scaly bark. The fruit of this tree make it a popular specimen for wildlife when food becomes scarce. This fruit matures only after the first hard frost of the fall/winter season. The fruit’s coloring starts yellowish-green and changes to yellowish-orange as it matures. In its final ripe stage, it is reddish-orange to purple and then it falls to the ground. Only at this stage is it fit for human consumption. Attempting to eat persimmon before proper ripening will result in the worst case of cotton mouth. I suggest waiting until the fruit is falling to the ground to collect and eat the persimmon fruit. It is very healthy and contains more potassium than a banana. You will have to compete with the regional wildlife as it is eaten by almost every specimen walking and flying about the Wintergreen landscape. A great spot to find persimmon is the Stoney Creek Park Trail.
Once the leaves fall and the cold weather descends, the outdoor enthusiast expects a colorless palate. These fine specimens in the Wintergreen forest break the dullness of winter and offer vibrant color and in some cases a tasty treat. Get out onto the trails and find the fruit of fall.