The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Backyard super foods

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Headlines herald – "Top Ten Brain Foods", "Top Seven Heart Healthy Foods" or "Super Foods You Should Be Eating". I always scan the lists. If they don't include chocolate, I'm immediately suspect of their validity. Exotic fruits such as acai berries and goji berries often appear on these lists and are commonly appearing on store shelves. But what are these odd sounding fruits? Could we grow them here? And are their some heart healthy foods in our own backyard?

Acai berries (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) are the fruit of a type of palm tree (Euterpe oleracea) native to the Amazon rainforest of South America. The dark purple fruits are smaller than a grape and grow in large clusters high in the palms. In many respects acai production is a sustainable story where local people are paid a fair wage to harvest native fruits from the rain forest without clear cutting trees. The palm tree's tropical nature leaves us out of production. Acai berries have been used for food and medicine for centuries. The berries are high in antioxidants/anthocyanins, and surprisingly for a fruit they have a lot of healthy fatty acids and protein and not much sugar.

Another listed "super food" are goji berries (pronounced go-gee) Lycium barbarum, of the tomato family. Goji berries are native to the verdant valleys of China, Mongolia and the Himalayas in Tibet. They have been used in China, Korea, and Japan for thousands of years as a traditional herbal medicine. The bright red berries are high in antioxidants, particularly carotenoids such as beta-carotene and zeaxanthin.

Not much information exists on growing goji in a home garden, but commercial production now includes parts of Utah. Goji plants tolerate temperatures up to 100 degrees F and down to minus15 degrees F. They are drought tolerant once established. The shrub can grow up to 12 feet tall with long vine-like branches in full sun areas. Since gojis are native to mountainous regions, our soils may be just too fertile for them to be happy. But hey, if you are into gardening experimentation, you may want to give growing your own gojis a try.

A better bet is to grow the "brain foods" we know we can grow. Blueberries, black currants, elderberries, and cherries to name a few - They don't have exotic names but their fruits pack a healthy punch.

Blueberries can grow well here, however they need extra attention to soil preparation. They require a moist but well drained acidic soil with high organic matter. Suggested blueberry cultivars include 'Collins,' 'Patriot,' 'Bluejay,' 'Bluecrop,' 'Herbert,' 'Nelson,' and 'Elliot.' It is best to plant more than one variety.

Black currants and elderberries were once commonly seen in gardens. Even though they are fairly easy to grow, their popularity languishes. Both berries are used in making jams, preserves and wine. Suggested black currant varieties include 'Consort' and 'Crandall'. 'York' and 'Adams' are especially heavy-fruiting cultivars of elderberries.

For us tart cherries are more successfully grown than sweet cherries. Suggested tart cherry varieties include 'Montmorency,' 'Meteor,' 'Suda Hardy,' and 'North Star.' All are self-fruitful, therefore cross-pollination is not needed.

Black Chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa, needs a new name if it is ever to become a super food. However the fruit of this North American native is being researched for its potent power of antioxidants that may rival acai berries.

And let's not forget all the other super foods of broccoli, spinach, and beans that we know we can grow here. Plan now to add a few heart healthy, smart brainy, super foods to your garden next year.

For more info on growing backyard "super foods", check out the publications: Small Fruits in the Home Garden and Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest https://pubsplus.uiuc.edu/ 1-800-345-6087 or visit http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/ http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/fruit/

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