Toronto's Urban Orchard

Apple blossoms bloom on branches which appear against a bright blue sky.

As Toronto’s streets abound in blossoming fruit trees, shrubs, and plants, we take a short look at this tasty part of our city’s natural heritage.

This article is part of a new series, Heritage at Home (April to June 2020). We’ll share poignant stories that provide historical context to some of our current challenges, and also playful tales meant to entertain and chase away any confinement blues (at least temporarily).

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By Leslie Sinclair, June 2, 2020

The urban fruit harvest

Toronto fruit trees produce an estimated 1.5 million pounds of bounty each year between June and October.

As some of the healthiest folks in the country, the benefits of eating food grown close to home is well known to Torontonians: more nutrients and less chemicals, not to mention the reduced carbon footprint. It doesn’t get more locally grown than plucking a fresh piece of tree-ripened fruit from an overhanging branch. Yet much of this valuable food is ignored and goes to waste.

Peach orchard, c. 1937. Image: City of Toronto Archives

The seed

Where did our fruit come from? Toronto's fruit story is Toronto's immigrant story.

When you move to a new country, you want to bring things with you that remind you of where you came from. Because memory is intimately connected to food, for many first-generation Torontonians, that meant bringing fruit trees. Across the city, the appearance of fruit trees tells the story of who settled in that area.

The St. Clair West neighbourhood between Vaughan Road and Old Weston Road is home to a diverse cluster of fruit trees that includes peaches and apricots and recalls the Italian and Portuguese population historically concentrated there. Elsewhere, grape vines hint at a Mediterranean population, while cherries suggest a Ukrainian influence.

Of course, not all of these memories of home have worked out so well for Toronto. Garlic mustard, an edible herb native to Europe, arrived in the 1800s. Once it escaped into the wild, it proved it to be a particularly aggressive invasive. By hindering the growth of fungi that native plants rely on for nutrients, it eventually chokes them out, which has had a negative affect on the ravine system. It does make a great pesto, though.

Orchard, near Ellis Ave., Toronto, 1895-1900. Image: Archives of Ontario
Not just for birds: Toronto's native fruit might be the most overlooked of all.

Sidewalks stained deep purple with fallen berries are a common sight toward the end of June. These miniature blackberry look-alikes are mulberries. Beloved by more than 60 species of birds, they are also a plentiful and delightful snack for us humans.

Another Toronto native, serviceberries, are so ubiquitous you might not even realize you’ve been seeing them everywhere for years. Riverdale Farm and the University of Toronto’s downtown campus are just two places where you can find these massive trees laden with reddish-purple berries. Juicy and sweet right off the branch, serviceberries make wonderful pies.

Then there are hackberries, chokecherries, and crab apples. Casting your eyes down from the trees for a moment, you’re likely to spot a wild raspberry bush. Or maybe even tiny ruby-red strawberries growing in the grass.

Native fruit

Pear tree in bloom, May 2020.

So why the waste?

Food illiteracy has led us to distrust grocery store staples like cherries, apples, plums, and pears when we see them growing in the wild.

Helena Moncrieff, author of The Fruitful City, which won the 2019 Heritage Toronto Book Award, contends that since the 1950s we have lost touch with what grows naturally in our cities. Rather than figuring out what the fruit is and understanding if it is safe to eat, we opt to avoid it altogether “just in case.” She calls this food illiteracy.

That we have come to laud organic vegetables that we can buy, while fearing food grown substantially without chemicals that is completely free, is a tragic indication of how far removed we’ve become from our hunter-gatherer instincts. Yet with the help of our digital devices, it has never been easier to interpret what is growing around us. Just point, identify, and nosh.

Women in apple orchard, Whitby, 1930. Image: City of Toronto Archives
Operating even slightly outside of the commercial food system deepens neighbourhood relationships.

The popularity of pick-your-own farms speaks to a collective need to be connected with the source of our food. Picking a bucket of fruit is empowering and educational. The downside is that by virtue of their location outside city limits, U-pick farms are simply not an option for those Torontonians who don’t own cars.

Foraging, on the other hand, is an accessible urban adventure. Emboldening ourselves to taste the fruit we notice ultimately connects us to our local geographies, communities, and seasons. And it gives apartment dwellers the opportunity to participate in the growing season, too.

Though many of Toronto’s fruit trees are on private properties, keep in mind that the land has likely changed hands since the original homeowners planted them. Often, current homeowners feel their abundant fruit tree is a burden rather than a blessing. If you ask, you may find out that taking a few pieces of fruit is a great help to them.

Urban foraging

Cherry trees in bloom, North York, 1980-1995. Image: City of Toronto Archives

Towards a gift economy

What would a culture of fruit-sharing look like in Toronto?

On a recent trip to Phoenix, Arizona, I hiked with a guide who told me about the city’s fruit-sharing culture.

“If you live in Phoenix and you pay for lemons, you’re not living right,” he said.

That’s because, like Toronto homeowners, Phoenix residents can’t keep up with the quantity of ripening fruit their mature citrus trees provide. Failing to deal with it, however, is not an option. Fruit that drops to the ground and goes to rot draws all kinds of sugar-loving pests. Toronto has rats (and wasps, and all the other usual suspects). Phoenix has roof rats.

So what do they do?

Well, they share it with their neighbours, friends, and coworkers. They pay to have their trees gleaned and the fruit taken to food banks. But, my guide explained, homeowners also commonly leave paper bags full of citrus at their curbs for any passersby to claim.

In Toronto, there’s Not Far From the Tree, an army of volunteers who glean registered trees and divide the spoils equally between the homeowner, the pickers, and a local food bank. And of course, Torontonians love to share their riches with loved ones, too. But between the geographical limits of the former, and the physiological limits of our bellies, Toronto’s fruit trees produce more than these outlets can absorb. Just one mature pear tree, for example, typically yields 200 pounds of produce.

What if we took the Phoenix approach and Toronto became a place where everyone recognizes a paper bag left on the curb as an offering of love to the community?

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