Most homesteads are surrounded by an abundance of trees growing in the wild. This is great for firewood and shade, but selectively planting certain trees can offer other benefits. These include fruit trees and certain trees that provide natural, medicinal benefits. The win/win is when a tree can satisfy all needs: firewood, shade, nutrition, and medicine.
Here are some trees to consider planting that offer the greatest variety of benefits. We’ll cover the specifics of each in terms of value on multiple levels:
- Apple trees (3 varieties)
- Cherry trees
- Pear trees
- Oak trees
- Mulberry trees
- White Willow
Tree Planting 101
You can buy trees in a variety of sizes from a nursery, or you can do like our pioneer ancestors did and start them from the seeds. An obvious general rule is that the larger the tree you plant, the sooner you’ll reap the benefits.
Plant Two of Each
Planting two of each tree variety in relatively close proximity will ensure pollination. If you plant one pear tree and the next closest pear tree is 30 miles away, you probably won’t see much fruit.
Protect the Trunk and Base of Newly Planted Trees
There are some animals in winter that will strip the bark of a young tree and effectively kill it. Deer are notorious for gathering around a sapling and tearing the bark from base to branches. Field mice and voles can do the same at the base of a tree. When the bark has been stripped around the circumference of a tree’s trunk, the tree will die. This is referred to as “girdling.”
There are a couple of approaches you can take to prevent this. One is to protect the trunk from the base to the branches with a rolled circle of chicken wire about 6 to 8 inches in diameter. This can be enough to repel deer, but mice and voles can still find their way past it.
The other option is a hot pepper combination that is either sprayed or painted on the bark. A standard recipe is a bottle of the hottest hot sauce you can find plus cayenne pepper or some blended Scotch Bonnet Habaneros pureed with vinegar and oil. Animals may still take a taste, but one taste is usually enough to send them off in search of friendlier food.
It’s also good to generally cluster your fruit trees in the same area. Many fruit trees bear fruit at the same time and having them relatively close together makes harvesting easier.
Consider the Possibilities
Here are just a few ways that trees can provide value to a self-reliant lifestyle:
• Fruit in hand for snacking and meals. Many fruits like apples are ranked very high on a nutrition scale and offer medicinal benefits. We all remember “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
• Fruit pies, pastries, and other baked items provide a good source of healthy calories and still deliver their nutritional value.
• Fruit juices like apple cider, cherry juice, etc. There have been many studies done that show the significant, anti-inflammatory value of cherry juice for treating conditions like arthritis and gout.
• Vinegars made from fruit like cider vinegar. Books have been written about the value of apple cider vinegar. It’s a powerful, natural antiseptic; an invaluable ingredient for food preservation in canning and pickling, has numerous medicinal properties for treating skin conditions, indigestion, inflammation and the list goes on and on.
• Jams, jellies, and preserves are another way to preserve the natural nutrition and medicinal value of fruits for long-term use.
• Sauces and syrups like applesauce, cherry and mulberry syrup and other variations like apple butter also brought diversity and preservation techniques to fruits from trees.
• The wood of many trees is prized for smoking fish, game, and other foods due to the light, sweet smoke they bring to the smoking process.
• Fruits add diversity to a diet in addition to vegetables from the garden and proteins from farm animals or from hunting and fishing.
• Fruits are high in fiber to aid digestion and regularity.
• Fruits are enjoyed by all ages and can accompany meals at all times of the day.
• There are also medicinal properties in the bark of many trees with the inner bark or xylem of the white willow topping the list. White willow xylem contains a compound known as “Salacin.” Salacin is the active ingredient in aspirin and an infusion of white willow bark is just as effective as a pain reliever as aspirin in tablet form.
• Fruit from any fruit tree can add to a farm animal’s diet, especially pigs and rabbits.
• Acorns from oak trees have significant nutritional value including calories from fat, a high-calorie count, and can be either eaten by hand or ground into flour.
• Firewood will eventually be provided by any tree as its branches or the tree itself dies off.
With all of that in mind, here are some trees to consider for your grove or homestead orchard.
1. Macintosh Apples
These apples are juicy, tart and make an excellent choice for making cider, cider vinegar and for baking because of their firm texture.
2. Winesap Apples
These apples are a heritage species and also provide a good amount of juice for their size and also present a firm texture for baking. They have a uniquely tart taste and, like all apples, are great in hand when eaten off the tree.
3. Red Delicious Apples
These apples are the traditional snacking apple. They are large, have a delicate flesh and a mild flavor. Curiously, they provide less juice for their size and their delicate texture doesn’t hold up as well when baked but regardless, they can also be used for juicing or baking in a pinch.
4. Golden Delicious Apples
Another delicate and flavorful variety and perhaps the favorite for eating in hand. They too can also be juiced or used in baking but the firmer and juicier varieties like Macintosh and Winesap hold up better in baked goods.
5. Cherry Trees
There are two basic varieties to consider: sour cherries and sweet cherries. Sour cherries are used in baking and for juicing, and sweet cherries are the choice for eating cherries in hand and also for juicing. You can plant both, but the two varieties will not cross-pollinate, so remember to plant at least two of each variety. Both varieties have anti-inflammatory value.
6. Pear Trees
Pear trees present a delicate and sweet fruit that is great to eat in hand and to use for sweet and flavorful desserts, from upside down cakes to canned pears and preserves. They’re a kid’s favorite and can be preserved a variety of ways, and they also add some diversity in terms of fruit flavors.
7. Mulberry Trees
Wild berries abound — raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, and wild strawberries — but no single plant produces more berries than a mulberry tree. They start bearing fruit early in June and continue to bear fruit into the summer.
The easiest way to harvest mulberries is to spread a tarp on the ground under the tree and shake the branches with a forked stick. You’ll get your share of leaves, stems, and bugs as well, but it’s easier to pick the ripe mulberries from a pile in the center of the tarp rather than the tree. They’re great as a topping with any cereal, they can be juiced, made into jelly or preserves, and they can even be used to dye clothing.
8. Burr Oak Trees
It’s quite possible you may have some oak trees growing already, but the Burr oak produces an acorn that is naturally sweet and not as bitter as acorns from the red oak and white oak. Most acorns are high in tannic acid. These tannins impart a very bitter flavor to the acorn that must be leached out through water soaking and repeated water changes.
Burr oaks are different. The acorns have the least amount of tannins and the acorns can actually be eaten right off the tree when they first appear and after they have been shelled. They’re called Burr oaks because the acorns have a frilly growth around them that resembles burrs. They’re great when roasted and can be ground into a light and delicate flour.
9. White Willow
We already mentioned the pain-relieving value of willow bark, but this is also a great shade tree. They prefer moist soil and swampy areas but usually will thrive in most locations. The green wood is also extremely flexible and ancient people sometimes used willow to make bows and arrows.
The Ginko tree is the oldest living deciduous tree on earth. It was believed extinct and only a fossil record from 400 million years ago recorded their existence. It was in the 1930’s that a botanist from New York was stunned to find a Ginko tree growing in a garden in China. He took some cuttings and every Ginko in North America today is derived from those cuttings. An infusion of Ginko leaves has proven medicinal properties for treating a range of ailments from muscle soreness to inflammation, and it can boost the immune system.
Of course there’s more…
This list is only a suggestion for trees to consider and there are certainly others you may prefer, but the trees listed here satisfy the basic criteria of providing value nutritionally, medicinally, and practically. The sooner you get the trees in the ground, the sooner you and your family will reap the benefits for years to come.