Winter fruits

Some ‘exotic’ winter cropping fruits are hardy enough to survive mild winters almost unprotected, though without some help their crops are usually poor. These I covered earlier; the citrus, loquat, olive and so on. However with more heat, not just frost free but warm (not room temperature but say 50F) then a whole new range of exciting fruits become possible. And many of these also ripen in the depths of winter when our garden is well empty.

The Ceriman is an unusual fruit, from Africa it has ended up all over the world. You may be growing one already, you see them often, this is the fruit of the common Swiss Cheeese Plant, Monstera deliciosa. Note the last name. For this large green corn on the cob like fruit is delicious- like pineapple and banana. But you have to wait till full ripeness or tiny spicules in the flesh make it unpalatable. As to growing –just a bigger tub, in more light and warmth, it’s a vigorous forest floor scrambler and climber and given good conditions it blooms easily with huge creamy white arum like flowers. The fruit is ready when the skin pushes itself off in small hexagonal tiles- really interesting to watch. The flesh is borne on a central stem which like the thick skin is inedible.

The Tree Tomato, Cyphomandra betacea, is distantly related to tomatoes, the shiny purple tinged red fruits are reckoned to resemble tomatoes but really are more like large pointed plums. Sometimes eaten raw- with salt much like a tomato it’s better cooked used in dishes much as a tomato or stewed with sugar. Ripening fruits in mid-winter it’s a useful crop and easy to grow. However unkempt, straggly even, it weeps under the weight of crop, it’s unbelievably prone to most pests, and worse, it’s leaves smell weird, so it’s not really a pleasure to grow….

Solanum quitoense is another tender tomato relative with marginal utility. Again easy to grow, with remarkably tasty fuzzy coated orange fruits best as a delicious drink with sugar and water. Tender but not in need of great heat it’s attractive with purple flushed leaves. However it’s down side is it’s very thorny, all over, leaves, stalks even fruit stems.

Carissa grandiflora, the Natal Plum is another thorny tropical fruit often used as an informal hedging plant. The branches carry vicious thorns and the most gorgeously scented large white jasmine like blooms. The fruit is red, plum sized, not very good raw but makes excellent conserves. Sometimes seen in sheltered Mediterranean gardens it’s flowers alone make it worth growing.

Passion-flowers or rather passion fruits in the supermarket are P. edulis which can flower and fruit in the same year as sowing. In summer these can go out with the citrus but in winter they’re soon lost if cold though great heat is not liked. Easily grown in large tubs trained up (down, and around) two metre poles these set more fruits with several plants for cross pollination. The amazing flowers are followed by smooth fruit that taste better once shrivelled and wrinkled. There are many flowering species many of which have edible fruits, though not all so be cautious, and not all are that tasty. P. edulis is preferable, a yellow skinned variety is considered easier but not as good. The banana shaped P. mollissima is delicious and well worth trying. (Beware the Australian P. herbertiana which will take over so I do not recommend it except for the specialist.)

You can grow your own coffee, it will taste about as good as those ersatz supposedly healthy alternatives. But it’s a very attractive easily grown small tree or shrub, sometimes sold as the plant or seed. The laurel like leaves have slightly crinkled edges, the flowers are white jasmine like, beautifully scented and worth growing even if you don’t want the crop. These are small red cherries, the flesh edible in moderation but seldom eaten and usually fermented off the seeds. It is these once roasted that make coffee. Coffee is a good conservatory plant; a shade loving mountain grower it tolerates the conditions well, and sometimes survives temporary lower temperatures.

The Pineapple is a must. Relatively compact and guaranteed to fruit after surviving three years it’s a lot easier than most gardeners suspect. Kept moist and warm in summer and dry and warm from autumn till spring it’s only lost if cold and wet. Start with a healthy top from a ripe fruit, dried a week then when the dead lower leaves are removed small roots are seen ready to grow away. Given free draining fairly rich compost pineapples do well- beware tiny saw like spines on the leaves. They enjoy misting rather than watering during the growing season. After the amazing flower the fruit swells, when it starts to yellow stop watering, eat once nearly fully yellow-it will be the most tasty pineapple you’ve ever eaten!

Bananas are a moot point. More sensitive to cold than any of the others here they’re more costly to maintain. However their main handicap is size. The only one worth considering for fruit is the Cavendish or Dwarf Chinese and even this dwarf still needs at least two metres of head height -much more if not in the ground but a huge tub. Where you have space this is a magnificent crop, impressive, luxurious and spectacular. Other than sheer size and tenderness a banana is not difficult. Basically a huge herbaceous plant where each trunk dies after fruiting to be replaced by another. This necessitates removal of all surplus shoots coming from the stool so that any one time there are no more than three, the main stem about to fruit, it’s replacement of about a third to half it’s size and a wee shoot to follow that. Leaving too many shoots results in unfruitful congestion. Eventually a giant sweet corn cob pops out the middle of the trunk, flops over and starts expanding into many hands of bananas along the now hanging stem. The wee flowers on the end of each does not want pollinating and can be carefully removed as wilting petals may allow rot to start if conditions are humid. The whole stem is cut when the first fruits start to ripen as the rest finish ripening better with the stem detached not left on the plant. The spent trunk can be removed though will rot down anyway. It is possible to fruit (poorly) a banana in a tub as small as a dustbin- but bigger is better. Supermarkets and garden centres sell banana plants often unlabelled as to variety- look for light purple hazing over the young leaves as a sure sign it’s a Cavendish. Do not waste effort on ornamental varieties as any fruits are never worth eating, nor grow bananas from seed, do you want seed bearing bananas?

Now one fruit I did not expect to succeed is the Custard apple. q are a series of closely related species of small tropical trees often with lightly perfumed leaves, small three petalled flowers and green skinned fruit varying from small and knobbly through grapefruit sized balls to huge spiky surfaced lumpers. The smaller are tastier such as the Sugar –apple while bigger species such as the Soursop are more fibrous and used for beverages. The flesh is sweet and pleasantly custard like, sort of pasty, enclosing big hard brown seeds in abundance which are easy to grow. So far I’ve only managed to crop the Cherimoya, the variety most often sold in supermarkets. It’s cricket ball sized, smooth with slight flats all over and worth trying where space is available.

Now some other tropical fruits are more difficult to crop, well I’ve been unsuccessful so far, but it’s still fun to try, especially as their seeds come free with every fruit you buy.

The pawpaw is incredibly easy to start and will grow to two metres- the first summer. But it’s very hard to get through winter needing it warmer and brighter than all the others put together. If the roots don’t rot the top moulds down. Unless you’re lucky and raise an hermaphrodite (not uncommon) you need male and female plants. But these have cropped in English, even in Scottish, greenhouses so maybe... And even if you don’t get fruits the leaves tenderise tough old chicken cooked with them.

The coconut can sometimes be bought as a plant, a coconut as sold will not grow without it’s husk which has been removed. But the sheer size before they crop effectively puts them out of the question. Likewise the date, often started from a ‘stone’, these have, amazingly, occasionally grown outdoors for several years, however cropping dates is just not possible. Not just their size but their heat and light requirements are so exacting that few places in the world can crop dates at all anyway!

Tamarinds are big brown ‘beans’ sold in ethnic shops which have brittle skins enclosing sweet sticky paste and wiry fibres about the seeds. These are really easy to grow into small decorative mimosa like trees- but again these need to get huge to crop so are unlikely prospects.

You might have more luck with an avocado, like dates these have often been grown from seed for fun. Moreover modern varieties are hybrids bred for cropping in cooler regions and odd ones have proved just hardy when planted outdoors in sheltered spots. Cropping requires really rich soil, warmth and preferably several plants to ensure pollination but then it should be possible. Likewise for the Mango, this also is difficult to pollinate if alone, and more cold sensitive. Luckily the seeds often produce several seedlings, some true genetic offspring and others clones of the parent, so you have a chance of one arising that will crop here under cover.

Many try to grow a lychee, which ought to be easy. However both personal experience, and many questioners over the years, indicate this almost has a death wish, and seems reluctant to live. It invariably dies away, commonly when about a foot or so high- I suspect it needs a mycorrhizal root fungus. Let me know if you succeed with a lychee please, or anything else unusual.