The high desert climate type is often a difficult one to find edible trees for.
Nursery suggestions will give you trees that bloom too early in spring frosts, leaving you no fruit.
But there are many plants that will do just fine. It will just take a little searching and good tree care.
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High desert, which I just decided to be anything above 5000 feet and less than 12″ of rain, is a harsh climate.
- Other “low” deserts don’t have the cold temperatures (down to -20°F) and late spring and early autumn frosts that limit species and variety selection.
- High deserts get much less precipitation than other places just as cold.
- You often have to deal with high winds and thin or alkaline (or both) soils.
If you didn’t have to deal with cold, you could use Middle Eastern or Mediterranean desert plants. This is a huge list.
Geoff Lawton has famously done this in his Greening the Desert project in Jordan.
If you didn’t have to deal with lack of rain or alkaline soil you could use plants that thrive through the Northwest, Northeast, or Midwest. This is also a huge list.
No, you have to deal with all of it. But take heart, I am here to relieve your suffering!
Sort of. Well, at least as far as it comes to tree selection.
The key to success is that you have to pick plants that can survive very hot, very cold, droughts, dry and alkaline soils, along with significant wind.
That shortens your list quite a bit.
The good news
If you’re willing to step outside of just what’s available at the grocery store, you have lots more options for your high desert food forest.
And believe it or not, many of the common fruit trees, especially in the Rosaceae family (apples, pears, peaches, cherries, plums, etc.) will do fine in the high desert, with proper variety selection and some microclimates & protection.
Make sure to read the desert tree planting article for instructions on how to .
Also, not all species or varieties are self-fertile and require either another tree or a whole different variety (I’m looking at you, apples and plums!).
Just pay attention when selecting varieties what their pollination needs are.
Also, a note on time to start fruiting. Most species start fruiting by their 3rd or 4th year, but some don’t start until their 5th year.
I do suggest not letting the tree set any fruit that third year, to let it grow its root structure. Yes, it’s painful to remove the first fruits of your baby tree, but this practice is best for its long term health.
If you’re really impatient, plant a mulberry, fig, peach or apricot (or citrus in a container). They are the fastest to fruit (in 1-2 years), and may help satisfy your impatient fruit cravings.
My 3-foot tall Polly peach tree set two little fruits in its third year (the only tree to do so), but your mileage may vary!
This article is super long, so I added links to make navigation easier.
Just click on the link to go directly to that tree’s section.
Fruit & Nut trees
Notes: One of the oldest cultivated fruits. A member of the stone fruits family with peaches/nectarines, apricots and cherries.Some plums do better than others in alkaline soils, but will generally tolerate slightly alkaline. Flavors vary as much as skin color, which ranges from almost black to yellow.
There are European & Japanese types, and most of the fresh eating plums available are Japanese. They are usually larger and rounder than European plums. Japanese plums will also generally grow faster, are resistant to more diseases and bear fruit at an earlier age.
European plums are almost all self-fertile, unlike Japanese plums which usually require cross-variety pollination. Europeans are usually canned, and special varieties are the ones made into prunes. They are usually longer lived trees than Japanese, though they start fruiting later.
Plums can reach 15-20 feet, so keep them pruned down if you want to harvest from the ground. Also, you will need to thin fruit (I know, it’s hard!) to avoid breaking branches from too-heavy fruit set.
It will take 3-6 years to fruit after transplanting.
Hardy to: USDA zone 3
Suggested varieties: Stanley (prunes), Green Gage(fresh eating&processing), Blue Damson (jams/jellies), Waneta(fresh eating&processing), Sapalta(canning&jam), Mount Royal (not self-fertile), Santa Rosa(partial self-fertile Japanese)
Notes: Another stone fruit member. Related to almonds. Fuzzy (or not in the case of the nectarine) thin skin over summer distilled. Can be clingstone (flesh doesn’t easily separate from pit) or freestone (flesh easily separates from pit).
Peaches are self-fruitful, so you aren’t required to have a different variety to set fruit. But another variety may increase the yield, and after all, what’s the fun of only one type of peach?
You will want to choose a hardy late-blooming variety to avoid spring frosts that can rob you of a year’s fruit. They need heavy pruning to keep them healthy. Because they fruit on 1-year old wood you can hard-prune 40% of the tree every year.
You know what that’s called? Chop and drop, baby! Free mulch!
It will take 2-4 years to fruit from transplanting.
Hardy to: USDA zone 4
Suggested varieties: Intrepid, Polly (white), Reliance, Ranger, Contender
Notes: Apricots are a relative of peach and almond. They’re very tolerant (some sources say well-adapted) to alkalinity, and don’t seem to be affected by mineral deficiencies that high pH sometimes causes. However, apricots need zinc, so make sure it’s in your soil or you have to add it. Ask your state cooperative extension for help on this.
They are very common in the Middle East (lots of alkaline soils), where they’re probably originally from. Like peaches, apricots are not a reliable producer unless you choose a late blooming variety.
Similarly, they need a firm hand pruning to keep the proper structure. Just be aware that like peaches, apricots fruit on last year’s wood, called spurs. Essentially, cut off gray shoots, but leave the reddish ones.
One of the earliest trees to fruit, as soon as 2 years, but sometimes up to 5 years after transplanting.
Hardy to: USDA zone 5
Suggested varieties: Mormon/Chinese, Montrose, Goldcot, Moorpark, Harcot. Also see http://www.gb-online.co.uk/gb-wordpress/?p=701 for many more
4a. Sweet cherry
Notes: Most sweet varieties are not self-fertile, and must be pollinated by a different variety. Often has dark red bark.
Cherries will usually self-thin naturally in early summer. Be careful when pruning – most cherries grow on 2 to 4-year-old wood.
Birds love cherries, so consider a lure crop like mulberries and/or put netting over the tree. Protection is much easier when you keep the tree small by pruning.
It will take 4-7 years to get fruit from a sweet cherry tree.
Hardy to: USDA zone 5
Suggested varieties: Self-fertile – Sweetheart, Skeena, Lapins, Sumleta Sonata, Stella, Sandra Rose, Index, Santina, Columbia
Non-self-fertile – Van (pollinate with Stella), Gold (more cold hardy, less attractive to birds)
Also see the cherries out of University of Saskatchewan: Carmine Jewel, Juliet, Valentine, Romeo, Cupid
4b. Sour/tart cherry
Notes: High acid content. Often called pie cherries because that’s how they’re used. Also preserved by canning, fermenting, or in liqueurs. Some are sweet enough to eat off the tree.
The same properties for sweet cherries apply to tart – birds/netting, self-thinning and pruning.
It usually takes 3-5 years to get fruit after transplanting.
Hardy to: USDA zone 4
Suggested varieties: Montmorency, Surefire, Balaton, Evans
5. Cornelian cherry Cornus mas
Notes: Actually a flowering/fruiting dogwood, this is a deciduous large bush or tree 8 to 25 feet tall with edible fruit. It is a native of Europe and Asia, where it’s commonly processed into foods. It’s been used as a food crop in Greece for 7000 years.
Cornelian cherry doesn’t like drought or wet feet, so keep it well watered in a free-draining soil.
The blooms are frost-hardy, so fruit production usually isn’t bothered by late frosts.One of the earliest blooming shrubs, and flowers will open before the leaves do. Can be an excellent bee forage.
Fruit is an elongated 1/2″ to 3/4″, similar in size and shape to an olive, with a single large seed. The fruit is often red though some yellow, purple, and white cultivars are available. Reportedly tastes like a tart cherry ,and birds and squirrels love the fruit. It ripens over a few weeks or months like mulberries, excellent for the home fruit production.
It has a potential lifespan of over 100 years. Pruning can keep it a reasonable size, even trained as an edible hedge. Partially self-fertile, make sure to plant another variety for best fruit production.
Trees from seed take 6-10 years to fruit, but grafted varieties will fruit within 1-2 years of transplanting.
Hardy to: USDA zone 4/5
Suggested varieties: ‘Variegata’ has variegated leaves, ‘Xanthocarpa’ has yellow fruit, ‘Fructu Violaceo’ has purple fruit, ‘Alba’ has white fruits
Notes: Tolerant of alkaline soil. Comes in white (alba), black (negro), and red(rubra), but beware that this doesn’t always indicate fruit color.
Choose white or black, not red varieties – red doesn’t like being dry. Can be planted as a lure to keep birds away from cherries or other fruits.
For some reason birds would rather eat mulberries? That’s because they’re delicious! Plant white fruiting variety to avoid purple staining cars & patio/sidewalks from bird droppings.
Great paired with a chicken/duck pen, as you’re harnessing the birds to pickup the fruit while lowering their food bill. Stacking functions for the win! And you get richly orange-colored egg yolks.
Many varieties are high yielders over a long season. Good for fresh eating or dried/preserved, depending on variety.
Fruits within 2-3 years from transplanting.
Hardy to: Most USDA zone 4, some varieties like ‘Pakistan’ zone 7
Suggested varieties: Illinois Everbearing(white/red cross), Pakistan, Oscar’s, Silk Hope(white/red cross), Sweet Lavender
Notes: A relative of apple, “pom” fruits are among the most cold-hardy of tree fruits. Sweet juicy white to cream flesh for Europeans. Thin yellow, green, russet or red skin. Grocery store European varieties most common are Bartlett, Bosc and Anjou. Asian pears are crisp like an apple.
You have a ton of choices when it comes to variety, from most suppliers. Make sure to get a disease resistant variety.
Unlike most other fruits, pears must ripen off the tree. If left on too long they become mealy and eventually rotten. So harvest on skin color change. Store in the fridge to keep for longer, letting a few at a time ripen on the counter.
Can be pressed like apples to make perry, the pear version of cider.
Fruits within 4-6 years from transplanting.
Hardy to: USDA zone 2/3 for European, 4/5 for Asian
Suggested varieties: Parker(smaller size), Magness, Potomac, Starking Delicious AKA Maxine, Summercrisp AKA Ussurian
Notes: Probably the most common fruit for backyard growers. With pears, they’re also one of the most cold-hardy fruits. Most require cross-pollination from another specific variety. Verify this when you buy your trees.
Apples are a great choice because most people like them, apples are relatively quick to bear, and they’re not hard to take care of. On the other hand, they can have issues with pests and diseases, variety dependent. But since they are so common the prevention and care steps are well known. Like pears, I also suggest picking a disease resistant variety of apples.
Some apple varieties are considered only good for cider because they don’t taste good fresh, but when juiced and fermented they make a wonderful cider. These varieties are a little harder to find, but not too difficult. So you could have both a fresh-eating apple orchard and a cider apple orchard.
Fruits within 2-5 years from transplanting.
Hardy to: USDA zone 3
Suggested varieties: Too many to list, but CSU recommends Freedom, Jonafree, Liberty, Prima, Redfree, Pristine (summer apple), Goldrush, Enterprise, Empire, Williams Pride
Notes: There are many (200 to 1000, experts can’t agree) species of hawthorn, some palatable, some not. As it has the word thorn in its name, expect to see some “sharp pokeys” some up to several inches long.
On the plus side, that does make them deer resistant. Some people even use them as security hedges.
An apple and rose cousin, hawthorns grows small red fruits, the size and shape dependent on variety. Some species are called “mayhaw,” not hawthorn.
Some people describe it as a “small apple tree with big thorns” with fruit that look like rose hips or crabapples. Hawthorns are hardy and easy to grow, and were used by many cultures as food and medicine. In the wild it’s fruits are loved by birds, and supposed to be high in Vitamin C.
There are many species of hawthorn, more or less edible but not always good tasting.
The big claim to fame for hawthorns is the high amount of pectin. They are used on their own or added to other fruits to make jelly, as hawthorn usually doesn’t have much flavor.
They were also used in cooking as a sauce, or to flavor alcohols. Apparently hawthorn makes unflavored vodka taste better.
Can be very long-lived, up to 400 years, and can be pruned just like its cousins the apple and rose.
WARNING: Sources I read warned that one thing to be very careful of is to never eat the seeds. Like apples, hawthorn seeds also contain cyanide. Your stomach will turn compounds in the seeds into hydrogen cyanide, which is toxic. Cyanide often smells like almonds, and because of this, never eat any flowers or buds that smells like almonds when crushed.
Don’t panic, just make sure not to eat the seeds or let kids eat the seeds. Also, make sure to strain the seeds out after cooking, as the toxin stays in the seeds.
Starts to fruit in 5-9 years from seed, 2-3 years from transplants.
Hardy to: USDA zone 4/5
The one-seeded or common hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, is native to Britain where it was used as a hedge. It is now naturalized in the US, and commonly used for medicinal purposes. It has a large size range from 15-45 feet, with 1/2″ thorns on the younger stems. Birds like thrushes and waxwings eat the fruit in winter as an important staple.
The Chinese hawthorn, Crateagus pinnatifida, whose fruit looks like a crabapple. They were used in Chinese cooking and medicine for thousands of years. It gets about 20 feet tall, is hardy in zone 6 to 9, and somewhat drought tolerant once established.
Next is the Douglas or Black hawthorn, Crataegus douglasii, that grows to 30 feet. It has apple-like, nearly black 1/2″ fruit.
Then we have the Washington hawthorn, Crataegus phaenopyrum, similar to Douglas in size. Like other hawthorns, the June-blooming flowers don’t smell very good. Washington hawthorn is more disease resistant than most.
There’s finally the Mexican hawthorn, Crataegus pubescens, that also has crabapple-like fruits. Locally used in food and drinks, and in pinatas during celebrations.
10. Mountain ash
Notes: Also known as Rowan, in Celtic mythology it warded off bad luck and evil spirits. You might know that Harry Potter of J.K. Rowling’s book series (and movies) uses a Rowanwood wand.
Most species like well-draining soil with good organic matter. But they aren’t super picky about conditions, as they can will adapt to clay or rocky soils. It is also a slow grower.
Like hawthorns, they’re generally hardy and low-maintenance. Just watch out for fire blight, as it can become infected.
Some sources say there are two types of mountain ash – one with berries best used for cooking, and one type for fresh eating.
This is really a tree for the higher and colder end of the high desert spectrum.
Hardy to: USDA zone 3
American mountain ash, Sorbus Americana, native to the Eastern US, tolerates damp soil and grows 10-30 feet tall and wide. It’s not the nicest looking species. It has orange-red fruit and grows as a tree or a shrub and can grow in zone 3 to 6.
Korean Mountain Ash, Sorbus Alnifolia, grows as a tree 40-50 feet tall, and 20-30 wide. A native of China, Korea, and Japan, it has pink to orange-red fruit, and tolerates drought and heat better than other species. It’s also less susceptible to borer insects, and can live in zone 3 to 7.
European Mountain Ash, Sorbus Aucuparia, grows 20 to 40+ feet fall, 15 to 25 feet wide. Though originally from Europe, western Asia and Siberia, it has naturalized in North America, and has orange-red fruit. It can grow in zone 3 to 6.
Notes: Pomegranates are native to the Middle East/Persia and cultivated since before written history. They may have even been the forbidden fruit from the Biblical Garden of Eden.
They also have high antioxidant properties, delicious juice and are bushes that can grow 15-25 feet tall.
But I betcha didn’t know you could grow pomegranates outside the tropics, did ya?!
Well, you can down to USDA zone 6 anyway, maybe colder with extra protection. Or grow them in a container spring and fall, then bring indoors when it gets cold.
Pomegranates are a holiday favorite for the bright colors, delicious flavor and just plain uniqueness. They are more bushes than trees, and are very tolerant of soil pH, up to 8.2 or so.
A heavy mulch during winter is not a bad idea, as well as protected microclimates.
Use a sun scoop, rocks for thermal mass and planting on your house’s east side away from cold north/west winds as well to help survival rates.
It should fruit in 2-3 years from transplanting.
Hardy to: USDA zone 6 for selected varieties
Russian 26 is a cold and heat tolerant 10-feet tall bush variety hard down to zone 6A. It has dark green foliage and orange, fragrant flowers in the spring. It’s also self-fertile and does well in any well-drained soil. Its seeds are said the the sweetest of any pom. The original seedling was found in a southern Russian orchard.
This variety also does great in containers, so growers in colder zones can bring it indoor in winter. It also has one of the the biggest yields of any variety, at 90-100 lbs of fruit per tree.
Russian Red is another variety that sounds very similar to Russian 26, and may even be the same variety rebranded. Its fruit is the size of a grapefruit, and the size is likely the same in other Russian varieties.
A. C. Sweet/Utah Sweet is variety popular in Utah and developed in Arizona. Hardy to zone 6, the pink fruit keeps well but requires a hot summer to ripen fruit.
Notes: China cultivated jujubes at least from 4000 B.C. and they’re still used widely in Asia and somewhat in Europe for various drinks, food and medicines.
In China there are over 400 cultivars, and jujubes have long since escaped to cover Asia and parts of Europe. American importation of Chinese jujube cultivars didn’t start until 1908.
Also known as Chinese date, Ziziphus jujuba, is an autumn-ripening fruit tree that gets 15-40 feet tall. It seems to just love summer heat, required for proper ripening of fruit.
The trees often have thorns and the branches grow in an interesting zig-zag pattern. They prefer sandy well-drained soils but will tolerate many different kinds. They also should do fine with little to no fertilization.
Another plus – it also has delayed budding so no late spring frosts are going to kill your fruit. The candy of the same name is a quite poor imitation of a delicious and varied fruit. The fruit has a single hard olive-like pit with two seeds.
Fruit size varies from cherry to plum-sized depending on variety, and may be round or elongated. If left on the tree, it will dry and wrinkle so that it resembles a date.
This tree is great for the home gardener, because the tree doesn’t ripen all at once, so you have a constant supply of fresh fruit over several weeks.
They can survive in almost any environment, but needs hot summers and sufficient water to produce fruit. In some ecosystems it’s become an “invasive” species for its ability to deal with many different conditions. I know I’d be OK with jujube invading my land!
Some varieties are used fresh, while as one their common names suggest, other varieties are dried like dates or candied.
It can fruit within 2-4 years.
Hardy to: USDA zone 6 for some varieties
Suggested varieties: Most common are Li and Lang, then Sherwood, Silverhill, So, Shui Men and GA-866
Notes: Native to Asia, figs have spread through the Mediterranean and Middle East. Like pomegranates, they usually aren’t planted in places that see snow.
So you should treat them with the same care and give them warm microclimates (a south-facing rock or concrete wall is great) and heavy mulch for winter protection.
But if a fig freezes and dies to the ground they will regrow from the roots and can set fruit that same year (Brown turkey & Chicago varieties).
Figs can grow two crops a year – a larger one on the previous year’s wood, and a smaller crop on this year’s wood.
Like most trees, young figs are more sensitive to frost and freezes than older established trees.
Figs need well-drained soil and lots of sun. Make sure it doesn’t have wet feet, especially in the winter. This shouldn’t be a problem if you’re in a sandy high desert like me.
If you can provide a microclimate to bump your zone to 7, your fig variety selection becomes much bigger and better.
It can produce fruit in 1-2 years.
Hardy to: USDA zone 5/6 for some varieties
Suggested varieties: Brown turkey, Chicago, Celeste
This hardy fruit from the Northeast hangs on the tree into winter for color when everything else is white and grey.
It was used by native tribes as an important food supplement during the cold months. Persimmons are also a favorite food for deer.
One interesting feature of persimmons is that they tolerate the jugulone given off by walnuts and pecans better than most other fruits.
American persimmon is a native to North America found all along the East Coast. The fruit when fully ripe is sweet and tastes somewhat like an apricot, though this changes with variety.
It ripens in fall, and can be eaten when soft as jelly. Unripe fruits are very astringent. There are many varieties of persimmons, with different fruit types, shapes, and colors. It’s usually orange to red.
They are a little more expensive than other fruit trees, because they’re hard to graft and the failure rate is high even for professional nurseries. But for a hardy tree that will live 100 years, it’s totally worth it.
It wants a well-draining soil, and handles pH up to 7.5. Persimmons do best in a hot and dry climate, and they’re also more drought tolerant than almost any other fruit.
This works great for those of us in a desert!
There is also the Asian persimmon, which is not as cold-hardy but may work if your winters don’t get below 0°F or you can make them a warm microclimate.
Like other hardy fruit trees, it doesn’t require much fertilizer, but will need enough water to set fruit.
American persimmon trees are dioecious, meaning that there are male and female trees. So check and make sure that your variety doesn’t require a male tree to pollinate it for fruit production.
Asian persimmons are self-fruitful and non-astringent, which means you can eat them when still firm and still have taste buds left. Try that with an American persimmon and you’ll be spitting it out pronto!
Persimmons don’t ship well, so you won’t find many on grocery store produce aisle. That’s ok, because the best-tasting fruits are ones you pick off the tree yourself.
You should get fruit within 3-4 years.
Hardy to: USDA zone 5 – 7 depending on variety
Suggested varieties: American – Yates, Prok (both zone 5). Asian – Fuyu (zone 7), Saijo, Ichi-Ki-Kei-Jiro(both zone 6)
Notes: Walnuts were present in a large swath of Asia in ancient times, and are highly represented in the Middle East. The Greeks are thought to be first to start selectively breeding them.
The Roman empire spread the trees as far as Britain, and as they were imported into early America from the UK they were called “English” walnuts.
Generally there are two types: the “common” (AKA English AKA Persian) walnut Juglans regia, and the American native eastern black walnut Juglans nigra. Less commonly found is the butternut or white walnut Juglans cinerea, and the native Arizona walnut Juglans major.
Most commercial varieties are some hybridization of the English walnut.
Walnuts can grow over 100 feet tall, live over 100 years, and drop thousands of pounds of nuts over their lifetime.
They will, like pecans, drop leaves containing jugulone during the summer. The roots as well have this substance and also emit it, which tends to suppress or kill any nearby plant, including grass.
For this reason don’t put walnut and pecan leaves in your compost pile/bins.
It’s also a reason that you really need to plan ahead when deciding where to plant a walnut. Think about other trees, their sun shadows and how things might change in 10-20 years time.
It’s much more of a permanent decision than placing other fruit trees that only live 10-20 years. Most English walnuts need a pollinator of another tree, so you may also need to make room for 2 walnut trees.
Few food-bearing plants can withstand this chemical attack, with the notable exceptions of crabapple, black locust, black cherry, hickory, hazelnuts, mulberry, pawpaw, persimmon, and quince.
So as you might expect, a walnut guild will consist of previously mentioned plants resistant to jugulone.
Walnuts can handle soil pH up to about 7.5, and like deep soils since they have large taproots. They also like moist but well drained soil, but are generally not fond of sandy soils since they tend to be too dry, or clay soils since they tend to be too wet.
So make sure amend your soil for moisture holding capacity (coir/peat) if you have sandy soil, and sand if you have clay soils. And always add lots or organic matter and heavy mulch over the top.
It is not drought-tolerant, and will need to be well watered to get a nut crop. But they are very good shade trees, and the wood is highly prized by woodworkers, and furniture makers.
Make sure to keep walnuts, as most other trees, away from septic and sewer pipes. A large tree requires large roots and you don’t want to replace or move your septic or walnut tree.
If you live in an area that is known to have the Thousand Cankers walnut disease, you may want to skip walnuts and pecans.
To be honest, walnuts are a tree I haven’t decided to plant yet. My soil is a really high pH and with all the other troubles I’ve had keeping “easy” trees alive, I don’t want to risk it. I don’t think I have a high chance of success.
It can take 10 years to produce the first nut crop, but it can produce nuts for over 50 years.
Some improved grafted varieties can bear at 3-6 years after planting, and some butternuts at 2-3 years.
Hardy to: USDA zone 4/5
Suggested varieties: Hartley, Chandler, Howard, Tehama
Notes: Related to peaches, almonds have a little of that fuzzy fruit covering over a hard shell, with the edible kernel inside. Another long-time cultivated crop – as early as 4000 B.C. – almonds are native to Asia and have been spread far and wide.
They don’t like very wet soil, and like peaches, are susceptible to springs frosts. So it’s important to select a late-blooming variety. Almonds only get 15-20 feet tall, and since two are usually required for pollination, you could them both in the same hole.
They like hot, dry summers and deep, well-draining sandy loam soil. Make sure to amend your soil if you need more or less water-holding capacity.
Almonds also have high nitrogen and phosphorous requirements. If your soil lacks these, make sure to use an organic or better compost rich in decomposed manures (nitrogen), and bone meal(phosphorous).
During bloom time, apply manure, manure tea or diluted urine, and give smaller trees less fertilization than older ones.
Once established they are drought-tolerant, but must be watered to produce a good crop. Almonds have somewhat high water requirements, of around 2-3 inches per week. Trees planted in sandy/gravel soils will take more water.
Most almonds aren’t cold hardy enough for my area, USDA zone 6, but there are some varieties available. Just search for “cold hardy almond” in your browser.
Note that CSU Extension warns that almonds do poorly long-term in high pH soils, so if you’re in this situation either adjust your soil’s pH or pick a different tree.
They can bear about 3 years after planting.
Hardy to: USDA zone 5/6
Suggested varieties: Hall’s Hardy Almond, or a Ukrainian/Russian variety like Bounty or Seaside
Notes: Pecan pie is a favorite in the southern US, for good reason: it’s delicious.
An extended family member’s house by the Colorado river has a giant pecan tree, planted some 40-50 years ago. I have no idea what variety is it, but it seems to have loads of nuts every year. I think it may be getting some frost/freeze buffering effects from the river.
Pecans are similar to walnuts in many respects, for example soil and moisture preferences, pollination, cold hardiness, and jugulone emission.
Pecans are native to Mexico and the southern US, and are particularly found in the Mississippi river valley, in Texas, Mississippi, and even to Illinois. They’re naturally found along streams and flood plains, and well-drained soils.
Like walnuts, they prefer moist but not wet soils. Native Americans used the sweet and thin-shelled nuts as a significant food source, and started their cultivation.
Commercial pecan cultivation didn’t start until the late 19th century, which is relatively late compared to the other food crops here.
Pecans can grow 60-120 feet tall, and rarely more than 150 feet. They have a true deep taproot so their roots must be kept well and evenly watered when planting and establishing.
Like walnuts, two different cultivars are required to pollinate each other, it will require good watering during the dry summers, and doesn’t tolerate drought very well. Even for mature tree, it will require at least 1″ of water per week, more if the soil is sandy.
Have the same jugulone issues as walnuts.
One issue is that the required pecan frost-free ripening season is quite long at around 155 to 170 days.
Pecans also need a certain amount of heat to ripen nuts. You may find out about “cooling degree days” which is the relation of temperature to ripening time. A cooling degree day is counted for every average degree above 65°F, and most pecans need 1000 of these to ripen nuts. Check out this site for a longer explanation.
So if you don’t have an average frost-free growing season that’s over 5 months long, find a short-season variety. Or just be OK with not harvesting nuts in some years.
After all, if nothing else pecans are large shade trees.
Grafted varieties can yield in 4-8 years from planting.
Hardy to: USDA zone 5
Suggested varieties: Depends on CDD/growing season length. Try ‘Iowa’ at 135-140 days to ripen, see HERE.
18. Pinyon Pine
Notes: Though other members of the pinyon pine family exist, here I’m talking about Pinus edulis, AKA the Colorado pinyon, AKA two-needle pinyon.
Pinyons, native icons of the Southwest, grow in dry, warm climates with often sandy soil and lots of sun. You know, like a high desert.
They have been, and still are important culturally and economically to native peoples, which have harvesting rights to the nuts in some places.
Pinyons don’t get much over 20 and rarely 30 feet, and can survive just fine on less than 15 inches of rain, thank you very much.
On my land it’s the dominant overstory tree. Unfortunately the next highest “tree” is 2-feet tall sagebrush.
The easiest way to kill a pinyon tree are to give it too much water or fertility. All the pinyons in my duck enclosure are dead or dying.
Pinyon is a tree that really is hands-off and maintenance free. The only two things you might want to do is prune out the dead or crossing branches and give it just a little more water than it gets naturally.
Remember of course that in captivity most pinyons are killed by overwatering – water deeply but infrequently.
Pinyons are very slow growing, and will be about 5 feet tall at 40 year, and can live 500 to 600 years. It commonly grows either alone or with juniper. Unfortunately in the 19th and early 20th centuries they were often cut down in the mistaken belief that it created better sheep and cattle pasture.
Research suggests young pinyons do better when planted under nurse trees or bushes. Provide some shade in the early years if this is not possible.
The wood has a pleasant distinctive smell when burned, though because of the high silica content it dulls chainsaws quickly.
It also oozes very sticky sap (AKA pine pitch) from any cut or abrasion, as well as from the cones. Quick tip: If you have tree-climbing minions, you can get sap out of kids hair with lemon oil. Alcohol or cooking oil also works.
The main yield here, however, is the sweet pinyon nuts. They grow in the 1-1/2 to 2″ cones then drop out as they ripen and dry.
Of course, birds love them, especially jays and turkeys, and in some years will get them before you. Like some other nut trees, pinyons will have good and bad years, with several years – between 4 and 6 – between excellent crops.
The cones have pitch on them as well and if you try to harvest directly from them you’l be covered in sap in no time. I have found it’s less messy and somewhat easier to pick up the dropped nuts under the tree. This is a good kid task if you can get them to do it, since the kids are lower to the ground and pinyons usually have low branches.
Some people try to increase the yield by shaking the tree. But there is a Navajo legend that if you shake the tree to get the nuts you will bring an early winter. I bet this was some frustrated parent try to keep naughty children from making a mess.
While harvesting, you want the dark brown nuts. Light-colored or two-tone nuts are often empty.
Pinyon nuts are essential to good pesto, which is of course delicious considering it’s so simple: garlic, parmesan cheese, olive oil, pinyon nuts.
Cone production usually starts after a tree is 20-25 years old.
Hardy to: USDA zone 4
Suggested varieties: No known improved varieties. Easily sprouts from seed.
Notes: Filberts AKA hazelnuts may be your best bet for a reliable nut crop. They are more bushes than trees, but can be trained as a tree if desired. They usually grow as small 10-feet tall and wide bushes, at a fast to medium rate.
Hazelnuts are one of the main ingredients in Nutella chocolate spread.
American hazelnuts are native to the Midwest and grow in fertile, well-drained soils. Make sure that you amend your soil if necessary. Hazelnuts can have a hard time if your soil pH is 7.8 or above.
American hazelnuts are also more cold hardy than European hazelnuts.
Hazelnuts don’t need much fertilizer if you have good soil. But if your soil is poor make sure to add organic matter and compost.
After planting make sure to keep the ground moist for several months. Like other nut trees, water deeply but don’t drown it. During droughts water once a week.
They are also self-infertile and need to be planted with a different variety for good pollination.
Hazelnuts don’t really need pruning other than removing suckers and damaged wood.
One big threat to hazels is the eastern filbert blight. However, there are blight resistant varieties available, and are highly recommended if you have eastern filbert blight in your area, or just want an improved variety.
They’re also sometimes attacked by a webworm (caterpillar) that causes the leaves to roll up.
You will probably have to cover the bushes with netting to keep the chipmunks, birds and squirrels from stealing the nuts.
Hazelnuts will start producing 4-6 years from planting.
Hardy to: USDA zone 4
Notes: I’m going to lump all these oaks together. The bigger varieties are great shade trees, though most are slow to medium growers. All of these tolerate alkaline soil, but can survive in a wide variety of soils.
This is not true of oaks in general. Some don’t do well in dry or alkaline soils, or with cold.
19. Burr: Largest acorn of all US native oaks, up to 2″ wide, just wait 35 years from seed. Can live 500 years. Heavy, hard wood. Sometimes called a white oak. Will hybridize with other white oak species, including Gambel.
Pioneer species at prairie margins and savannas. Excellent wildlife forage. Leaves are yellow to red in fall.
20. Gambel: Tough, durable Colorado native. Usually a shrub or small tree. Often called “scrub oak”, regrows quickly from fire damage. Small acorns, hard and heavy wood. Slow growth that increases with irrigation and fertilization. Excellent wildlife forage – 75% of wild turkey’s winter diet is Gambel acorns.
Burr/Gambel cross: As stated above, white oaks will readily hybridize. This can result in a faster-growing tree with larger acorns. I bought some hybrids from University of Idaho State Nursery and was impressed with the quality.
21. Chinkapin: Quercus muehlenbergii, rugged producer of high quality shade. Sweet edible acorns, 40-50 ft tall, 50-60 ft wide, up to 6500 ft elevation. Great wildlife forage. White to pale bark. Leaves are mistakenly similar to chestnuts, and bright yellow in fall.
Hardy to: USDA zone 3 (Burr, Gambel), 4 (Chinkapin)
Suggested varieties: Burr, Gamble, Burr/Gamble cross, Chinkapin
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