There is a phenomenal difference between what grows in the wild and what we grow on farms. Thanksgiving turkey, for example: when compared to wild turkey, the difference is significant–most will question as to whether or not it is the same kind of bird.
Whereas the apples we are used to are crisp and sweet, crabapples are almost inedible raw, and sparkleberries are nowhere near as tender as blueberries. Luckily, they both make a pretty good jelly or jam, along with providing an excellent food source for wildlife.
Wild crabapples, Malus angustifolia, are a native species found in sporadic thickets around the region. The fruit are small with the diameter of a quarter to a half dollar coin.
This indigenous tree is in the same genus as commercially produced apples, but is an open pollinator species which has developed randomly over the centuries. The blooms have an aromatic scent and the trees a conical or triangular shape.
Some cultivars of the species have been selectively bred for ornamental applications with showy blooms, but the wild species is a source of fruit for wildlife. Fruit production depends on various environmental factors, including ample rain.
The raw fruit have an astringent, bitter flavor and are not considered palatable to people. They have been used to make jellies, jams and food preserves in countless home recipes before the advent of similar, commercially available products.
The hard dense fruit are a favorite of deer and other larger mammals. Their thickets are frequently located where two or more different habitat types come together.
Wildlife abundance and diversity is typically greatest along these habitat edges because they contain cover vegetation for safety, as well as food. Borders between fields and forests, or forest stands of different ages or species, create the necessary differentiation.
These edge plants can combine to provide shade, nesting areas, and camouflage for many wildlife species. Wild sparkleberries are also fruiting during the warm days of summer, offering more menu selections for native wildlife.
Vaccinium arboreum is in the same genus as commercially grown blueberries, but has grown and spread with little human involvement. Like the wild crabapple, the sparkleberry is found in thickets which receive shade and protection from taller trees.
Sparkleberries produce a generous supply of green berries which turn to a glossy dark blue when ripening in the early days of summer. Most plants are under six feet in height, but can reach ten feet if they live many years and receive the necessary moisture.
The ripe berries are sweet, but have very dense flesh with thick skins. They too have been used for jellies by cooks and homemakers of the past.
Birds are particularly fond of the berries and aid with the scattering of the seed. Even after drying, many of the fruit will remain on the plant well into the autumn and continue to supply birds and other small animals as the summer bounty comes to an end.
To learn more about wild fruits in Wakulla County, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or at https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/