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A 'Godfather' fig and a numbing pepper tree: 5 unique edible plants you can grow in Lancaster County

Bill Lauris 0175a.jpg

Bill Lauris grows more than 300 varieties of figs plus more unique edible plants. He shared five plants you can actually grow in Lancaster County, including jujubes.

Not all trees are equal in Bill Lauris’ eyes.

He’s lost track of how many trees he cut down because they were boring.

“If I’m giving them space in my yard, the agreement is: I’m giving you a place to live, you give me something in return,” he says.

Here, along busy Rohrerstown Road plus another property in Roseville, Lauris has made room for more than 300 varieties of figs plus more unique edible plants. He collects trees with stories for his business, Off the Beaten Path Nursery. One tale involves a gun and a misunderstanding. One tree might be the only albino variety around. Another was found on vacation because the hunt never stops.

While Lauris deals in plants and cuttings, many of his trees bear fruit around this time of year. He picked five plants to grow in Lancaster County — or at least appreciate.


Lauris focuses on figs, yet he calls the jujube tree a crown jewel.

“It’s so criminal that people don’t know about this fruit,” he says.

Also known as red dates, this fruit is often found dried in Asian markets. Fresh jujubes are like small, honey-flavored apples. Neither one is like the chewy gumdrop jujubees candy.

The fruit is touted as something that’s high in antioxidants and can improve sleep.

The Li Jujube tree Lauris grows has glossy leaves and doesn’t need to be sprayed to keep away pests. “Even squirrels kind of look at them sideways,” he says.

The tree doesn’t mind dry or wet soil, but it does require plenty of sun.

Sichuan pepper

The Sichuan pepper tree’s thorns are a first sign of caution.

While the heat of some spices can burn, Sichuan pepper numbs. Harold McGee compares the tingling to licking a nine-volt battery in his book, “On Food and Cooking.”

Lauris had two extra Sichuan pepper trees after buying in bulk for a wholesale order. While they looked tropical, he planted them in the yard and they took off.

He loves the look of the tree with thorns covering the branches and leaves.

The leaves smell good enough for an aromatherapy break while mowing.

The fruit turns red as it ripens, then splits open. The peppercorns are a key ingredient in Sichuan cooking but were banned in the U.S. for decades because of the possibility of carrying bacteria harmful to citrus trees. The ban ended in 2005.

A Nigerian chef who cooks in Philadelphia loves the peppercorns so much, he bought one of Lauris’ trees and still comes back every year for more.


The small cranberry patch started with Lauris’ love of blueberries.

Lancaster County farms grow a wide range of crops, yet the soil is so well-balanced, it’s difficult to cultivate acid-loving berries. Lauris tinkered with a mix of soil and peat moss. Adding Frey Brothers Soil Conditioner with pine bark worked even better.

The berries loved the new mix and Lauris tried to grow cranberries. However, cranberries need well-drained soil that stays moist. (They don’t grow in water. The wet fields of large cranberry farms are flooded to make harvesting easier.)

He found those well-drained yet moist Goldilocks condition next to his home’s air conditioner condenser. Even on the hottest days, condensation runs off. Spongy peat absorbs the moisture, keeping the area wet enough for the cranberries. The unit’s on the home’s south-facing side, which normally would be too sunny for cranberries. Thankfully, the tree canopy keeps them from too much sun.

In the right soil mix, cranberries will fruit throughout the growing season, Lauris says.

The Godfather fig

Each fig tree at Off the Beaten Path has a story. The Godfather fig was part of one of the greatest films ever made.

No, the garden was not the main focus in the scene where Don Vito Corleone dies. Still, a grip working on the set took home cuttings from the fig trees imported from Sicily to New York.

The figs survived on Long Island for decades. Lauris read about them on an online fig group and traded for one.

The Godfather figs ripen later in the season with distinct black skin and white flesh.

Originally, fig growers were asked to share this special fig, not sell it. That changed after people broke the rules. Lauris got permission to sell cuttings. Now there are fig growers sharing their results on the forums and YouTube.

The appeal is easy to see, he says. “You own a piece of history,” he says.

Fuyu persimmon

Lauris is not a fan of American persimmons, but he calls the Fuyu persimmon a home run.

Fuyu persimmons are larger than the native fruit and crunchy rather than custardy soft. In general, they’re honey sweet, not astringent.

The fruit hangs on to the tree so tightly that Lauris usually removes a branch to harvest the fruit.

While American persimmons grow from Florida to Connecticut, the Asian varieties like Fuyu are not as hardy. Lancaster County is on the northern border of its range. Gardeners slightly north in U.S. Department of Agriculture zone 6b might have trouble growing them.

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