Recommendations for a Favorite Pastime: Eating!, Part II

This week we continue with our look at some of the edible plant species available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery. Part II concentrates on shrub and tree species.

Jujube (Zizyphus jujuba): The Jujube tree is a fruit tree in the Rhamnaceae, or Buckthorn, Family, that grows very well in southern Florida. Its origin is southern Asia, and for 4,000 years it has been cultivated in China, where there are 400 known varieties. It can attain a height of 20 ft. and a width of 12 ft., and it features shiny green foliage. It bears small oval fruits from late November through January The fruit, eaten fresh while still smooth and green, has the consistency and taste of an apple. It later matures to a purplish-black coloration. It is at this stage that the fruits are dried and become chewy, with a date-like consistency, giving them the common name Red Dates. This species is extremely cold-tolerant, surviving temperatures downs to about 5° F.

In China, its products include jujube tea, as well as juice and a vinegar used to make pickles. A wine is also made from the fruit. Chinese medicine uses the fruit to kill internal parasites, promote liver function, and improve the pulmonary system. In Iranian cuisine, the dried fruits are eaten as a snack.

Jujubes were first introduced into the United States in the late 1800s, but quickly fell out of favor due to the fact that the variety introduced was best suited for drying and not eating fresh. It wasn’t until the 1990s that growers introduced a variety cultivated for eating fresh off the tree. Most recently, in 2007, two more varieties were introduced for fresh fruit. It is unclear which cultivars are being sold in the nursery trade today; however, it is known that the following named cultivars are the best for consuming fresh: ‘Sugar Cane’, ‘Li’, ‘Sherwood’, ‘Chico’, and ‘Honey Jar’ Of those, ‘Honey Jar’ is the smallest and juiciest. ‘Lang’ and ‘Shanxi Li’ are best for drying and eating like dates. One thing is clear, though: Each tiny fruit has 20 times more vitamin C than does citrus.

Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus): We’ve all heard about 1,600-lb. pumpkins and 270-lb. watermelons. Those are impressive weights, and fortunately the fruits had the ground to support them as they increased in size. But do you know the largest fruit that grows on a tree? It’s the jackfruit (or jakfruit), and not only is it big, but it’s also very tasty – and versatile. Let’s take a brief look at what makes this odd-looking food so popular around the tropics.

The jackfruit tree is native to India, but is now cultivated in other parts of the world. In its homeland, a mature specimen may reach 80 ft. in height, but in southern Florida, 40 ft. is more the norm, and, through selective pruning, a homeowner can maintain the tree at 10-12 ft. without seriously disturbing fruiting. This species’ large fruit is supported by the biological mechanism known as cauliflory, meaning that the fruit develops on the trunk and major branches, which are capable of bearing great weight. The fruits are known as syncarps; like pineapples, raspberries and mulberries, they consist of multiple individual flowers and their resulting fruitlets fused into a compound fruit.

In subtropical southern Florida, jackfruit has proven to be quite dependable, usually flowering on an annual basis, generally from May to October. The best way to tell if an individual fruit is ready to eat is to pick it up as soon as it drops from the tree. Of course, that practice has its risks if you happen to be standing in the wrong place when it falls. The second-best way to detect a ripe jackfruit is the sniff test to see if you can discern a sweet aroma featuring notes of bananas and pineapples. But it’s not just ripe jackfruits that attract fans; many Southeast Asian recipes use green fruit. As further testimony to the jackfruit’s versatility, it can be eaten fresh, cooked, frozen or dehydrated.

Star Fruit (Averrhoa carambola): Here is yet another plant whose longtime popularity around the tropics has obscured its original range, considered to be somewhere in Asia. Introduced into Florida more than a century ago, it is now grown commercially in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Lee counties. Mature trees in our region reach 22-33 ft. in height, and may be single- or multi-trunked. Carambola produces beautiful lavender to pink flowers, although they are small.

Not only is the waxy-skinned, fiberless fruit visually interesting – usually a five-pointed star in cross-section – but it’s also tasty. Although the earliest introductions were quite tart, hybridization has led to cultivars that possess a subacid to sweet flavor. Optimal flavor is achieved when the fruit is allowed to ripen on the tree. Mature Star Fruit is a pale yellow, sometimes with green highlights. The fruit is not only popular eaten out of hand, but is also used in cooking.  Star Fruit is nutritionally very desirable: It is low in sugar and sodium and high in Vitamin C, potassium and antioxidants.

Carambola performs best in full sun, but can also produce fruit when lightly shaded. For optimum performance, it should not be planted in windy locations. It is a water-loving species and can even stand occasional flooding, but should nevertheless be planted on a site that drains well. It prefers soils with neutral to acidic pH, but does well in the alkaline soils of southern Florida if grown under a conscientious nutrition program. Good palm special fertilizers are helpful in this regard, because their formulations will contain desirable micronutrients.

Star Apple (Chrysophyllum cainito): Inroduced to Florida around 1887, this beautiful tree, native to the West Indies and Greater Antilles, produces smooth-skinned fruits 2-3 in. in diameter that have achieved popularity as far away as Southeast Asia and throughout tropical lands in between. The sweet fruit is usually eaten fresh and is favored as a chilled dessert.

Fruit ripeness is indicated by a bit of softening and the dulling of skin color. Mature fruit must be cut from the tree; it does not drop on its own. The rind and skin of Star Apple fruit are not edible due to their latex content. When cutting the fruit open, care should be taken to keep the latex from dripping onto the flesh.

Where Cainito is native, it can become quite tall, but in southern Florida it is most often seen maturing to 25-35 ft. It features a broad, dense crown. Even if it were not a fruit tree, it would be a very desirable ornamental plant because of its foliage. Leaves are dark, glossy green on the upper surface and fuzzy golden-brown on the lower surface.

Star Apple thrives when grown in full sun. The planting site should have excellent drainage, but the tree is not otherwise particular about soil type.

Sugar Apple (Annona squamosa): This species is the most widely cultivated of the Annonaceae, due mostly to its ease of growth in coastal lowland climates. The plant is short, falling into the category of shrub or small tree, and it is well-branched, with light brown bark. Its origin is Tropical America, but it has long been distributed throughout the Old World and New World tropics.

The fruit of A. squamosa is quite distinctive. Generally oblong and measuring 2½-4 in. in length, its rind is composed of thick, knobby segments. None of the other 2,200 or so Annona species features such a fruit. As it ripens, the segments tend to separate. The pale-colored flesh of Sugar Apple fruit is creamy, fragrant, and sweet, and it contains significant levels of vitamin C.

A. squamosa adapts well to rocky soils, but prefers sandy loams. It holds up well to heat and possesses a degree of drought tolerance, but for best production it should receive supplemental watering during the growing season. Plant in a sunny location on a site with no drainage problems.

Custard Apple (Annona reticulata): This is another species thought to have originated in Tropical America, though long-since distributed throughout the tropics. It has an upright form with spreading crown and matures in the range of 25-33 ft. However, it is amenable to pruning to develop a preferred height and form. Fruit shape is quite variable, as is size – from just under 3 in. to about 5 in.

Custard Apple fruit has some variability, but the cultivar grown by Richard Lyons’ Nursery is sweet-tasting.

A. reticulata is not as drought-resistant as A. squamosa. However, it is somewhat more cold-tolerant, capable of surviving temperatures in the upper 20s and perhaps a couple of degrees lower as it matures. For best production, this species should be planted in full sun and well-drained soil. It appreciates ample watering, but does not react well to inundation.

Recommendations for a Favorite Pastime: Eating!

We at Richard Lyons’ Nursery are very observant folks, and we’ve noticed over time that people seem to love to eat. But folks don’t always choose wisely, in spite of all the salubrious foods available. Accordingly, we’d like to make some recommendations of wholesome and tasty vegetables and fruits available from our farm. Hint: There are enough of them to warrant a second installment next week. This week we report on plants specifically selected for their ability to withstand the long, hot, rainy summers of southern Florida.

Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum): Also known as Kow-choi or Chinese Chives, this onion relative is a very desirable plant for the summer garden. It excels as a flavoring agent for those who like a mild version of garlic; its delicate taste can be detected in many Asian dishes. Both leaves and flowers can be used as seasoning. But Garlic Chives also make a nice ornamental contribution to the herb garden, whether in small groups or as a ground cover. The 2″ x 2″ plants look like neither garlic nor onions, but instead feature flat, broad leaves. At flowering time, fragrant white blooms appear on stalks projecting above the leaves.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare): Oregano, an herbaceous perennial native to warmer regions from Europe to Asia, is a member of the mint family and is closely related to sweet marjorum. It can reach over 32″ high, but usually stays under 20″ and spreads by rhizomes. The dark green, oval leaves of Oregano are aromatic and tasty. They can be cooked fresh or dried for longer-term use. The plant produces white to pink to purple edible flowers on upright stalks, but the leaves taste best when harvested just before bloom time. The multiple cultivars of Oregano possess distinct tastes.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum): Parsley, a biennial aromatic plant native to both the African and European sides of the Mediterranean, has many culinary roles: herb, spice, vegetable. It is also a  host plant for the Black Swallowtail Butterfly. It generally grows in clumps about a foot tall by a foot or more wide. Parsley’s bright green triangular leaves are finely divided into flat or curly leaflets which are harvestable even in climates where wintertime nights hit the low-20s. One of the three varieties of parsley produces edible roots. It is also popular as an ornamental plant in gardens, where it can be incorporated in window boxes or used in the ground as an edging material.

Rue (Ruta graveolens): Like most people, you probably find yourself in need of a witch-repellent from time to time. Meet Ruta graveolens. From the Middle Ages on, this native of southern Europe was valued as an essential tool in the struggle against witches, so it was integrated into many spells — perhaps even by the Wizard of Id. In more recent times, Rue has been used both to flavor foods and to add fragrance to cosmetics and soaps, and it also has many medicinal applications. Ironically, its bluish leaves, while still on the shrub, emit an unpleasant odor, so it’s best to locate this hardy plant at some distance from your house. Rue also happens to be in the Rutaceae Family, or as most would know it, the Citrus Family.  As you may know, all Citrus Family members are host to the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly, and Rue is no exception despite its pungent aroma.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Here’s one of many herbs belonging to the mint family. Rosemary is a woody perennial plant that matures to about 6″ high and 4-5″ wide. It is at home in poor, dry soils. Native to Mediterranean lands, it produces strongly fragrant, needle-like leaves and semi-tubular flowers that vary from white to pink to purple to blue. Its astringent leaves are particularly popular when cooked with fatty foods, but are also often used to dress roasts. Rosemary is also said to enhance memory, a quality which may help you remember that you can prune it following flowering to encourage denser growth.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): A representative of the mint family, Thyme is a bushy, woody evergreen shrub native to southern Europe. It grows 6-12″ high and about 16″ wide and features highly-aromatic, small, gray-green leaves. Its semi-tubular flowers are pink to pale purple. Thyme favors full-sun exposures and easily tolerates dry, rocky, shallow soils. The leaves are most aromatic just before bloom time, and can be used fresh or dried to complement the flavor of meat and fish dishes, sauces, soups and stews. Thyme also has many cultivars created for its use as an ornamental plant in the garden or in pots indoors.

Tarragon (Artemisis dracunculus var. sativa): The aromatic leaves of this subspecies of Artemisia are cultivated for use as a culinary herb. The plant comes in many forms, each imparting a specific flavor. It is native from the Caspian Sea area to central and eastern Europe, including Siberia! Tarragon matures up to 5″ high, but usually shorter, and spreads by rhizomes. Flowers are yellow-green, but the plant does not always produce blooms. Its lanceolate, i.e., narrow and pointed, glossy leaves are used fresh or dried to flavor vegetables, meats, fish, sauces and eggs. Tarragon prefers well-drained soils. Most of the Tarragon sold in South Florida is Tagetes lucida or Mexican Tarragon.

Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus): Though commonly known as West Indian Lemon Grass, this popular herb is native to maritime Southeast Asia. It grows in dense clumps capable of reaching 6′ high and about 4′ wide. Its blue-green strappy leaves, which droop gracefully at the tips, emit a citrusy aroma when crushed. The leaves are also used widely — either fresh or dried and powdered — to flavor curries, teas and soups, as well as meat and seafood dishes. Lemon Grass oil contains a number of useful compounds, including the mosquito repellent, citronella. Plant this year-round herb in bright light in moist soil.

Butterfly Pea (Clitoria ternatea): This native Asian vine isn’t just a food source, but also an ornamental plant, featuring deep blue flowers with yellow markings. The peas are edible while in an early stage of development, when still tender. The elliptical flowers – just under 2 in. long – are used to make a caffeine-free tea and are also a source of food coloring. Although this sun-loving plant is reasonably drought-tolerant, it performs best when placed in a well-drained site and watered regularly. An additional benefit of Butterfly Pea is that it is a nitrogen-fixing plant.

Cuban Oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus): We end Part I with an herb that’s become so popular, for so many centuries, that it has multiple – and even conflicting – names. For instance, in India it’s known as Indian borage. In Cuba it’s called French thyme. In parts of the U.S., it’s known as Spanish thyme. Well, the species is not thyme, and it’s not from India, Cuba, or France! P. amboinicus is most likely native to eastern and southern Africa. What is certain is that it is an oregano-like member of the Lamiaceae (or mint) family. It produces a fleshy stem and fleshy, fuzzy oval leaves about 2½ in. long. It matures to just over 3 ft. tall. In addition to its use as a spice, Cuban Oregano is reputed to have medicinal properties capable of remediating respiratory, arthritic, and digestive problems. Chewing a leaf of this plant is said to ease the burning sensation of highly-spiced foods.

The Long and Short of Milkweed

When conjuring up thoughts of milkweed, what most of us visualize is the Mexican Milkweed, Asclepius curassavica, the small, red-orange flowered plant that plays a critical role in the life cycle of the Monarch Butterfly. But worldwide there are hundreds of species of milkweed, so-named because of their white sap. They all belong to the Apocynaceae, the dogbane family. Richard Lyons’ Nursery grows two species favored for their ease of cultivation in southern Florida. The difference between the two is remarkable.

The taller and less well-known of the duo is Calotropis gigantea, the Giant Milkweed. It may well be the largest of the many milkweed species. It is native to a large area ranging from Africa into southern and eastern Asia. The Giant Milkweed grows to a height of 10-15 ft. in its native habitats, but tops out at around 5 ft. in southern Florida. It may be cut back hard without dying. It has a distinctive gray stem, and its sizable oval leaves are gray-green and fuzzy, with white venation. The flowers of Calotropis gigantea are attractive and crown-shaped; they color up in shades of lavender, but may also be white.

 The Giant Milkweed should be grown in full sun to light shade. This very salt-tolerant species does not have a high water requirement and should be planted in well-drained soil.

 For those readers familiar with Mutt and Jeff, the Mexican Milkweed, Asclepius curassavica, is perfectly suited for the role of Jeff in this botanical pairing. In contrast to the Giant Milkweed, it has a slim profile and matures to about 3 ft. The differences also extend to its leaves, which are narrow and pointed at the tip. The red-orange inflorescence of A. curassavica is another distinction from its larger relative. This species is not particular about soil or moisture, so long as good drainage is provided.

 Both of these milkweed species are said to have medicinal properties, but, of course, latex saps can also be irritating. For nature lovers, the most significant similarity of the Mexican and Giant Milkweeds is their importance as food sources for Monarch (and other) butterfly larvae.

 These species are available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 1- and 3-gal. containers.



Florida Citrus Continues Its Slide

As Richard Lyons’ Nursery has noted several times over the past few years, the citrus industry in the State of Florida has been taking a significant tumble. First came citrus canker, followed by citrus greening disease and several hurricanes and tropical storms. Most recently, far-reaching Hurricane Irma unleashed severe damage throughout the citrus-growing region of the state.

Unfortunately, the latest projections for Florida’s orange crop revised the yield downward. The production for the 2017-18 season is now estimated at 45 million 90-lb. boxes, a one million-box drop from the January projection. That means that the harvest will come in 34.5% lower than last year’s. Florida’s orange yield has not been so small since the second World War. The grapefruit crop is faring somewhat better. For the third straight month, the projected yield has remained static at 4.65 million boxes. Still, that figure represents a drop of almost 40% from last season.

The damage wrought by Hurricane Irma is staggering, estimated by the state’s agriculture department at nearly $761 million! The federal budget legislation just passed provides for $2.3 billion in aid to Florida’s agriculture industry. While that is certainly welcome news, the fact remains that there is still no remedy for citrus greening. Until affordable preventive treatments are developed, Richard Lyons’ Nursery will not offer citrus for sale, and will continue to advise consumers not to buy citrus trees for their home gardens.

Versatile Brosimum alicastrum Overcomes an Identity Crisis

Over thousands of years, Brosimum alicastrum has attracted common names as easily as sugar water attracts hummingbirds. In Mexico alone, it is said to have more than 68 names in various local languages. Among the more common monikers are Maya nut, ramón, ojoche, ojite, ujuxte and masico/masica. Breadnut is yet another name for this species, but that term is also used to describe Artocarpus camansi, an Asian tree in the same family.

The wealth of names is a tribute to the value of the Maya nut across its large native range and beyond; people simply ignore what isn’t useful to them. B. alicastrum is native from central Mexico south into parts of Central and South America and east into the Caribbean. Over that range, annual average rainfall runs from 24 in. to nearly 80 in. That means that the Maya nut is capable of handling both dry and wet conditions. Its drought tolerance cannot be overstated. During the lengthy dry season in the Yucatán, when much of the vegetation turns a crisp yellow, B. alicastrum remains green, and its leaves and thinner stems become an invaluable source of forage for livestock.

The Maya nut is not only economically significant, but it also is a very stately ornamental tree. It has fairly narrow, leathery, dark green leaves, and a rounded crown. The species grows well in limestone soils, so it is at home in southern Florida. However, the lack of deep soil here works as a governor on the ultimate height of the tree. While it matures to over 100 ft. in native areas, it is more likely to top out around 40 ft. in our region. As B. alicastrum ages, it develops an attractive buttressed base. It is known for its strong root system, a boon in hurricane-prone places.

The fruit of the ramón is also fairly ornamental. When ripe, its skin turns orange. Ripening to between a half inch and one inch in diameter, the fruit has a smell and taste reminiscent of citrus. Underneath the thin fruit is a large seed which adds to the versatility of the plant. The nuts can be eaten raw, roasted or boiled. When boiled and then ground into powder, they give rise to a tasty coffee. There is some disagreement over whether the Maya nut was a major food source for the ancient Mayans, but what is certain is that the seeds have food value for modern consumers. They are also said to possess qualities beneficial to human health. They are high in antioxidants and are a source of fiber, protein, potassium, iron, folic acid, calcium, zinc and B vitamins.

Because of the ramón’s great drought tolerance, homeowners can plant it in the driest reaches of their property. Once established, the tree does not need supplemental irrigation. B. alicastrum is available – under any name you may wish to use – at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 1-gal. containers.