What’s the most delicious fruit flavour combination you can imagine? Is it kiwi-peach? Watermelon-grape? Cherry-mango? How about banana-prune? Ding ding ding! We have a winner!
It might sound weird, but the last combo is actually super tasty, AND it’s found in a fruit that’s native to northern climates: the nannyberry.
You’ll be forgiven if this is a new one—outside of landscape gardening and foraging circles it’s not very well known. I’d never heard of them until I was taking a walk with my sister-in-law/forager extraordinaire a few winters ago. I would have walked right by the shrivelled looking fruits, but she stopped and popped a few into her mouth. I followed her lead, and had a tasty surprise!
Landscapers love the nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) for its four season visual interest (it has vibrant red winter foliage), and foragers love it for the delicious berries that actually peak in flavour after the freezing temps have set in. An added bonus since you don’t have to fight the birds for it—many of them have migrated south for the winter, although you may have to compete with a brown thrasher or two.
In fact, the fruit is not a berry at all. It’s a drupe, like plums, cherries, and olives. A drupe is characterized by a single hard pit containing its seed, surrounded by (sometimes tasty) flesh. In the case of the nannyberry, an oval fruit with a long flat pit inside.
The nannyberry is in the muskroot family which includes the more famous elderberry, and roughly 200 other species.
The name “nannyberry” relates to the nanny, or female, goat. Some people say it’s because the female goat is more attracted to the fruit than her male counterpart. A friend of mine who has a homestead with Icelandic sheep says the ripe fruit smells like wet wool (ew). In my experience, it’s actually the wood that’s kind of stinky. My favourite explanation for the name, and the one that makes the most logical sense to me, is that the fruit looks a lot like goat poop. Poop drupes :)
The nannyberry is native to North America and has a huge range spanning from Canada’s east coast and west to Saskatchewan. It runs south through the Dakotas to Kentucky and back east to Virginia.
When cooking with nannyberries, I recommend processing the ripe drupes through a food mill to extract the pits. You end up with a yummy paste that can be further dehydrated, or used as is. Anything you’d do with apple butter you can do with nannyberry butter. Spread it on a muffin, add it to salad dressings or marinades, or eat it off a spoon.
Like many native plant species, the nannyberry can thrive in less than ideal conditions, and is found in areas with poor drainage like bogs. It will grow in partial shade, but prefers full sun.
It’s a great low-maintenance shrub that is pretty to look at year round. If you like bird-watching in the winter, the nannyberry will be a popular draw.