Birds are very smart. I am not talking about hens or dear old Sunny (the canary who is still hanging on), but wild birds, especially blackbirds. They know that fruit turns red to indicate that they are tasty and juicy and, since they have nothing else to do except hop around their adopted garden, keeping an eye on the crops, they usually get to any strawberry, raspberry, currant or even apple before I do.
This year the magpies were even smarter. Not only have they learned that they are strong enough to smash the peanut feeders to the ground and thus get a big meal with minimal effort, they have decided that their favourite apples are ‘Jonagold’. This is especially galling as I planted two trees at work and have always steered people away from them so that I could get the crop off the trees to myself, it being one of my favourite apples too. But it needs to be on the tree a long time and the magpies attacked them all! I have a tree at home now so I will not be encouraging magpies here.
But back to the subject, now and then I have planted an Ugni molinae (also known as Myrtus ugni). This medium-sized shrub is one of those ‘fringe fruits’ that is often recommended for home gardeners. Most of these ‘also rans’ are not more popular for a reason. They may not get the usual fruit problems but they either don’t crop well or they don’t taste great. Ugni molinae should be different – it was reputedly Queen Victoria’s favourite fruit. Since I just planted a plum that was allegedly preferred by the late Queen Mother, I should take this claim seriously.
The problem is that whenever I have tried to eat one of the fruits they have been far from pleasant. They have been gritty, hard and with a decidedly medicinal taste. Now part of this could be my fault because I think I have odd taste buds. I can’t bring myself to like Cape gooseberries and I have never eaten a guava and liked the experience and when my Acca selloana did produce fruits I though the experience was akin to eating firelighters, only harder on the teeth.
All these plants are in the Myrtaceae (except the Cape gooseberry), the family that includes eucalyptus and they probably all contain related chemicals, in the case of eucalyptus to make them unpalatable to most animals – koalas excepted of course. Ugni molinae was introduced to the UK in 1844 by William Lobb, from Chile and it is often called the Chilean guava. Other names are murta, ugniberry and, in the southern hemisphere, presumably for marketing purposes those shrewd Kiwis have christened it ‘New Zealand cranberry’ and their bigger neighbours ‘Tazziberry’, presumably because it flourishes in the climate of Tasmania.
Anyway, I had one of those moments the other day when I was dawdling round the local garden centre and saw the plants again. They were covered in fruits so I picked one to try. It was slightly mealy in texture but not like I had tasted before, when I had obviously picked the fruit before it was ripe, and it was soft. The flavour was complex but definitely like a strawberry – a good, almost alpine strawberry. The five-pronged calyx at the end of the fruit was a bit hard but overall I was very pleasantly surprised.
What is more, this is a neat evergreen, that will grow in most soils, preferring full sun, and is more or less hardy in any but the coldest spots. In early summer the small, pale pink but fragrant flowers are dotted over the plants and it is decidedly ornamental.
Feeling guilty about my stolen berry I bought not only one plant but one of the cultivar ‘Ka-Pow’ which is apparently UK bred and definitely has much larger fruits. So there are two more plants looking for a piece of improved soil to inhabit!
If you are in the area Springmount Garden centre still has a few plants left, though don’t let them catch you sampling!