Although we think that nowadays we have a tremendous range of fruits to grow there are in fact many more possible than we at first remember. More importantly the availability of greenhouses and the simplicity of electric fan heating has made possible the easy cultivation of a number of tropical and subtropical fruits. Most of these were successfully grown by the Victorian gardeners but have since fallen into horticultural obscurity. I have already dealt with pineapples and bananas in previous copies of KG (Jan. & Feb. 05) where I expounded how all were found far easier than anticipated.
Perhaps the old boys tended to make their tasks sound less than easy- but then they had jobs to protect. And in fairness they did have a lot of trouble keeping the temperatures up for tender plants. Now with electric soil warming cables and thermo-static fan heaters we do have it simpler to keep our treasures frost free. Plus our greenhouses and conservatories are much better constructed and insulated than their earlier ones. So there is no reason we should not grow any from the same wide range of edible crops that they achieved a century or more ago.
There is another advantage to growing unusual fruits. We all need wider nutrition and variety and if we grow a bigger selection of fruits then it is easier to achieve that government goal of each of us eating five different portions daily. Simply having five apples a day would be better than none but five different fruits obviously offers a greater spread of nutrition, and pleasure. There is also the ornamental, educational and aesthetic value of the more unusual fruiting plants themselves. And there is a great deal of satisfaction from cultivating such plants, especially when we grow them from seed. That is if you can get the seed or plant in the first place as most garden centres and suppliers stock mostly ‘big movers’ and such minority interests are ignored. Even so you can find specialist seed companies and nurseries who will get most things if you are prepared to pay. I’ve seen a fruiting avocado tree in the UK –mind you it was brought in already grown to fruiting size and cropping in a big tub. (They are nearly hardy as many large ones reported outdoors in London and elsewhere indicate, however several compatible bushes need to be flowering nearby to ensure pollination.)
Even if you can’t get the plant itself many of the more interesting fruits are sold in supermarkets and with almost every one there comes a free ‘packet’ of seed inside. These do not always come true, but that is not often a great problem. (And some such as mangoes and citrus sometimes throw more than one ‘seedling’ from one seed –both one or more true clones and the ordinary seedling.) Patience is also required though as some fruit trees grown from seed take more than a few years to fruit themselves. True -if you can keep it alive it will probably flower and fruit, one day. The quality may not be high but it’s what fruiting plants want to do so they usually achieve it.
And you may not want even a good result when it does arrive. I managed to crop a Tree tomato, Cyphomandra betacea, interesting but not so wonderful that I can recommend it; with stinking foliage it was also a pest haven. Likewise for the Naranjilla, Solanum quitoense. This is a very tasty orange fuzzy ball but it comes on a weird purple and grey felted prickly thorny scrambling straggling pest prone travesty that I soon evicted. The prickly leaves were most infuriating, though I did like the fruits… And Carissa grandiflora, the Natal plum, it throws reddish plum size fruits but in fact I preferred the jasmine like flowers until it’s thorns also led to it’s demise. The Prickly Pear cactus too was gone before it ever had a chance. I’m sorry but these thorny brutes have little place in a crowded area under cover with a clumsy human.
Of course some are ruled out by size; date and coconut palms, indeed all productive palms, breadfruit, most tropical nut trees, and most bananas, all get too big before cropping for general amateur cultivation. Luckily others are smaller, quicker, and generally good value to grow. Excepting citrus that is. These are probably the commonest tender perennial fruits in the country. Many people have a lemon, particularly Meyer’s or similar, and although delightful they take a long time to payback their purchase as lemons are so cheap compared to the cost of the plant. Similarly for oranges, grapefruits and satsumas which are inexpensive fruits but expensive plants. (Their near relative the kumquat can pay their way especially if you add value and coat them in chocolate yourself.) Still the popularity of citrus is also due their lovely scented flowers and leaves, and it is handy having a fresh lemon when you need one and to pick your own tangerines in mid winter. (I’ve over a half dozen lemon trees and bushes and another half a dozen other citrus all in tubs!) But they are not very economic and unfortunately usually very slow to fruit from seed, my Ortanique took 23 years!
Probably the most interesting tender fruit for gourmets who also love perfumes will be the true Guava (Psidium guajava). No commercial fruit is worse grown and sold, here or abroad, when compared to those which anyone of us can grow with ease! This fruit somewhat resembles a ripe fig and like a ripe fig or peach is usually never so to be had! Picked under ripe they never properly ripen and picked ripe they decay as fast as wet raspberries. And even if you visit the tropics they are no better as there they grow faster still and go over even quicker so they rarely achieve the perfumed liquid opulence they can here under glass. A guava ripening on it’s bush in a tub in the conservatory will perfume the whole house. The surface will almost decompose at maturity when the stringy seedy flesh is even more overpowering than a fully loaded musk melon. The seeds and chewy sepals can be consumed or declined; the jelly conserve is worth making, even the flowers have an interesting perfume though they are not impressive being small creamy shaving brushes.
There are several sorts of guava; the pear shaped which I rate the most highly and the apple shaped, there is also the smaller and even more useful cherry or strawberry guava. Both the apple and pear varieties have big leaves somewhat resembling an avocado or our laurel in form. The bark rather uniquely flakes off annually which helps both to shed pests but also to give them hiding places. Easy to grow from seed these are bushy and simple to grow in big tubs anywhere light and frost free. They are self fertile and endure the usual greenhouse pests fairly well. The only drawback with guavas is I that find these amongst the thirstiest plants I have ever grown!
The small purple or red guava with a distinctly pleasing strawberry flavour. (P. cattleianum, though they’ve changed the name) is superb and easy. This is a really choice fruit, more useful in many ways than the larger more heavily perfumed guavas. The cherry size fruits are rich in vitamins and are pleasing snacks. The leaves are small, evergreen and shiny and thus this makes a more decorative plant than the large leafed sorts. Only slightly less hardy than citrus these enjoy similar treatment; to be grown in tubs indoors and put outdoors for all of summer. If you can’t get a plant these guavas can all be grown from the fresh seed and cropped in only a few years.
The Pineapple Guava, Acca or Feijoa sellowiana, is unrelated and fairly hardy though needing to be indoors to crop, it has grayish evergreen leaves and red paint brush like flowers so it is sometimes found on the English south coast as an ornamental. Slow to crop from seed (I’m still waiting) these are a delicious tart fruit closely related to myrtle. As is the Chilean Guava, Myrtus ugni or Ugni molinae, another choice berrying bush for it’s delicious mahogany red to purple fruit on an attractive mounded form and small leaf. This is compact, no trouble and ought to be in every frost free greenhouse and conservatory. As ought the Pitanga cherry, Eugenia uniflora, also known as Barbados, Brazil and Surinam -cherry which cropping from young has one of the very highest vitamin c contents known in any fruit with a pleasant tangerine flavour. This is a small ribbed red berry on a straggly small bush and easy to cultivate, almost bombproof.
A most surprisingly fruit to try is the Cherimoya, (Annona cherimola) closely related to and often confused with the true custard apple (A. squamosa). Now found in supermarkets this green, orange sized, fruit with big black seeds embedded in the sweet pulp is grown in Israel and Spain and comes from the mountains of S. America. It makes a small lax tree or large bush with walnut like leaves and odd small green three lobed flowers. I have it now fruiting regularly for me and it’s only a half dozen years or so old. It is as obliging as to conditions as the guavas and fortunately needs less water. The other Annonas have not yet fruited for me and seem harder.
Likewise I cannot recommend mangoes or papayas from my own experience as these I have so far failed with. Though if you want a quick foliage plant papaya or the paw paw is hard to beat and the leaves are an effective way of making old tough meat softer. (papain is an enzyme, wrap the leaves beforehand round an old tough bit of meat and it will cook much softer.)
Passion fruits have proved remarkably easy, and quick. I have even had a small crop of winter fruit on a plant sown the previous spring. There are an unbelievable number of edible passion fruits and quite a few inedible but very ornamental ones. The common Passiflora caerula fruit is indeed hardy and edible. Well the thin grey pulp smearing the seeds is, but it’s almost impossible to gather. The form racemosa has a reddish smear instead and is a better plant. However the tasty passion fruits sold at the supermarket are P. edulis and these need a warm place to make it through winter where they can be prolific croppers. If you get keen there are then others with just as amazing flowers and fruits such as the banana shaped and the giant granadilla but these are not as tasty or easy as P. edulis. This comes in purple and yellow forms with purists maintaining the former is better but not as easy as the yellow. In either case the fruits are best when looking old and wrinkled. These can be successfully grown in large pots of ordinary well drained compost and trained up canes and are extremely attractive in flower into the bargain.
But the oddest tender crop I reckon you can grow is the Ceriman. This is the fruit of the common Swiss cheese plant, Monstera deliciosa. Given it’s usual miserable existence this Mexican native lingers on despite it’s deprivations. But given sun, warmth and a big root run it romps, takes over and produces massive arum type flowers. These are followed by the spathes turning into huge green, tooled-leather covered fruits. Only once these start to naturally flake off their skin do they become edible when the exposed pulp on a central stick is a delicious pineapple and banana taste, quite extraordinary, but you won’t want many.