Tropical Fruit – A Tasty Survey, Part II

This week we look at more of the interesting tropical fruit trees that we are able to grow in southern Florida.

Cashew Apple (Anacardium occidentale)

The Cashew Tree is an attractive, mid-sized species with a broad canopy. It produces large, leathery green leaves and yellowish-pink flowers. Native to arid northeastern Brazil, it was discovered in 1578 by Portuguese colonists. The first sighting by Europeans of the tree in fruit must have raised eyebrows, because what they beheld was a fleshy red or yellow structure with a seed hanging beneath it like a fat arboreal comma. But the nut seemed to be useless for human consumption, as the poor colonists who ate it tended to end up in a heap by the side of the road. Consequently, the initial attraction of the tree was its colorful, fleshy, sweet-tasting receptacle, which looks like a fruit, but is really part of the fruit stalk. It has come to be called Cashew Apple. Known formally as an accessory fruit or pseudofruit, it grows on the seed and does not precede it.

Through trial and error, the Europeans learned that the seed was edible if roasted so that the toxic shell could be cracked off. Nevertheless, commercial trade in cashew ‘nuts’ didn’t start until the 1920s. After ripe cashews fall from the tree, they are hand-collected and dried in the sun. They are then roasted, after which they are shelled by machine or by hand. In the nut trade, the leading cashew producers are widely separated—Viet Nam, Nigeria, India, Brazil and Indonesia. Cashew trees are quite tolerant of drought; in fact, dry periods are required to stimulate flowering.  In southern Florida, they should be planted on well-drained sites and fed with a fertilizer for acid-loving trees.

Blackberry Jam Fruit (Rosenbergiodendron formosum)

Rosenbergiodendron formosuam, f/k/a Randia formosa, is a native of Central and South America. It is a small evergreen shrub––trainable as a small tree––that matures to 4-5 ft. tall. As a member of the family Rubiaceae, it is a gardenia relative, and its 1½-2 in. white, tubular, star-shaped flowers produce a nice fragrance. And that’s not the end of the show. After pollination, olive-shaped yellow fruits develop. Inside each mature fruit are two cells containing a seed wrapped in soft, black pulp. Eaten out of hand, the pulp is sweet, a virtual match to blackberry jam.

R. formosum has other attributes, too. It begins blooming at a fairly early age, 12-18 months, and flowers and fruits in the fall/winter season, when other fruit trees are barren. New blossoms appear as the earliest fruits are maturing. Even a small specimen can yield a couple of dozen fruits. The species can flower and fruit in filtered light in addition to full sun. A slow grower, it is quite amenable to container culture. R. formosum is not difficult to grow, but it’s important to keep a couple of cultural requirements in mind: (1) Provide ample moisture and good drainage, but reduce watering during the coldest times of the winter. (2) Apply acidic fertilizers for optimum appearance and growth.

Swiss Cheese Plant (Monstera deliciosa)

This sturdy aroid has been described by one prominent botanist as “probably the finest foliage plant ever introduced into horticulture.” But it is even more than that, because it produces a delicious fruit that combines the tastes of pineapple, banana and even mango! The vine was introduced to England in 1752, but in the indirect way by which many tropical plants became distributed around the planet, the fruit of Monstera, despite the species’ New World origin, did not debut in the United States until 1874.

While the leaves of a young M. deliciosa are solid and heart-shaped, giving no early clue to any exceptional qualities, as the plant develops, the glossy, symmetrical leaves become much larger, split at the edges, and develop holes, often oblong, near the center. The mature leaf gives rise to the species’ widely-known common name, Swiss Cheese Plant. Under ideal conditions, the leaves of Monstera can exceed 3 ft. in length.

Monstera is a liana, i.e., a woody vine, native from Mexico to Panama. In the wild it may reach 70 ft., climbing trees to reach into the rain forest canopy. But M. deliciosa does not need to be grown only as a liana in the landscape. Its versatility allows it to be maintained as an impressive mid-size hedge. One of its best applications is to soften fences or walls at the edges of a property, and it possesses a wide range of light and water tolerance once established.

The plant’s aromatic fruit bears a mild resemblance to a corn cob. The “cob” bears hard green, hexagonal, cap-like scales that cover the fruits. The scales begin to pop off the fruits as they ripen. Monstera fruits are not only eaten fresh, but are used to flavor beverages, jams, baked goods, ice cream. sauces, stir fries and syrups.

Tamarind (Tamarindus indica)

The tamarind, a tree native to Africa, is a good example of a plant so valuable to humankind that it was long ago distributed to other lands where it naturalized, ultimately coming to be considered native there. So strongly did the Tamarind Tree come to being associated with India that when it reached Persia and Arabia, it was called ‘tamar hindi,’ or Indian date. From that erroneous term emerged the name tamarind!

Just as an ornamental, this species has a lot going for it. It makes a very attractive shade tree, characterized by a stocky, short trunk which supports a broad, dome-like crown. In some places around the world, it reaches 80-100 ft. in height, but in southern Florida 50 ft. is more common for mature trees. It has a moderate growth rate. The branches of older trees take on a drooping habit. Of particular value in our area is the high wind resistance of the tamarind’s trunks and branches. The crown is densely foliated with fairly delicate, bright green, pinnate leaflets. Except during the driest of winters, the tree remains evergreen.

Cooked tamarind fruit pods—from immature to fully ripe—have very significant uses in tropical cuisine. The pulp surrounding the seeds has a major role in the preparation of various curries and chutneys, as well as certain brands of Worcestershire sauce. In both the Old World and New World, a beverage—tamarind ade—has long been made from the fruit. In more recent times it has been concocted as a carbonated drink. The pulp is also made into jelly, jam, ice cream and sherbet. Tamarind syrup is a popular product in Puerto Rico.

Mysore Raspberry (Rubus niveus)

Only one species of raspberry has proven dependable in southern Florida. It is the Mysore Raspberry. R. niveus is a fairly large, sprawling shrub that can reach 10 ft. or more in height. Its cylindrical stems are pubescent (downy) when young, and bear hooked thorns. Its compound leaves possess serrated leaflets that are dark green on top and whitish and fuzzy on the undersides. The flowers of the Mysore Raspberry are pink to reddish-purple, about a half inch across, and clustered.

Of course, the most desirable feature of the Mysore Raspberry is its fruit. Shaped much like that of the red raspberry, that is, rounded-conical, with a flat base, it is considerably larger, 1/2 to 3/4 in. in diameter. It is red when immature, but darkens to purple-black upon ripening. The ‘bumps’ typical of raspberry fruit are more accurately known as drupelets. Luckily, the small seeds of R. niveus are inoffensive. And the taste is wonderful—sweet and juicy. Not only is the fruit a good source of Vitamin C, but one researcher considers it to be “a valuable natural antioxidant that has an immense scope as an effective source to cure skin diseases, wounds, and tumors.”

The Mysore Raspberry seems to be tailor-made for the soils of southern Florida; it thrives in alkaline limestone or in acidic sand. Supplemental irrigation should be supplied during the dry season. The best fruiting occurs when plants are grown in less than full sunlight. And while this species fruits all year long, the best combination of quality and size happens in the winter and spring. Accordingly, a homeowner may want to prune plants significantly in late spring.

All species described above are in stock at Richard Lyons’ Nursery.

Tropical Fruit – A Tasty Survey

Often––especially while stuck in snail-paced traffic on a hot, muggy day––we forget some of the unique benefits of living in southern Florida. One of them is the ability to grow a very large variety of tropical fruit species in our yards. Confined to a fairly small patch of land at the bottom of a peninsula, and benefiting from the proximity of the Gulf Stream, we can enjoy fruits that most folks in the rest of the continental United States have scarcely heard of. Over the next few weeks this space will be devoted to surveying some of the popular tropical fruit shrubs and trees that have been successfully introduced to our corner of the country.

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 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 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 down to about 5º F.

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 for eating fresh. It wasn’t until the 1990s that growers introduced a variety cultivated for consuming right 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 eating 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.

June Plum (Spondias dulcis)

Originally native to Polynesia and Melanesia, this species’ popularity has led to its distribution throughout the tropics. It was introduced to Jamaica in 1782, and started to be grown more widely there years later when Captain Bligh brought plants from Hawaii. In 1909 a source in Liberia sent seed to the USDA, but it did not catch on as a money crop in the US, possibly because its cold tolerance is just a few degrees below freezing.

The June plum, also known as amberella and a host of other common names, is fairly fast-growing, maturing to the 30-40 ft. range in southern Florida. Its hard green fruit often falls off the tree and ripens to a yellow-golden color on the ground. Eaten raw, June Plum fruits are crunchy, possessed of a pineapple-mango flavor with a bit of tartness. As they get further along in ripeness, they become softer. The fruit’s versatility has led to its being incorporated into a number of food dishes around the world. It is, for instance, made into jams and preserves and used to flavor stews, sauces and soups. It may be eaten with a shrimp paste or combined with chiles and other spices into a snack food. Elsewhere, the fruit is made into a drink in the company of ginger and sugar. It is also used in curries and, when dried, rendered into a spicy chutney.

This interesting species can grow in alkaline or acidic soils and, so long as a sunny exposure and good drainage are provided, is not demanding. Finally, don’t let the name June Plum mislead you; the species fruits almost all year.

Surinam Cherry (Eugenia uniflora)

One of the most reliable plants in southern and central Florida for creating a dense and uniform hedge is Eugenia uniflora, better known as Surinam Cherry. Few other plants stay full from bottom to top as they increase in size and age. Although native from northern South America to southern Brazil, Surinam Cherry was first described botanically from a specimen found in a garden in Pisa, Italy. That plant was thought to have been introduced to Italy from Goa, the tiny, but historically important, state on the western coast of India. It is thought that Portuguese travelers carried seed of E. uniflora from Brazil to Goa, just as they did cashew over 450 years ago. Since that time, Surinam Cherry has been widely distributed in the tropics worldwide and even into the subtropics.

Surinam Cherry in Florida flowers in early spring and develops attractive ribbed fruits about an inch in diameter that ripen from bright red to deep scarlet to purple-maroon. As a hedge, it tends to be pruned so often that most of its fruit production is lost through the removal of flowers, but as a stand-alone small tree, it is an excellent source of food for wildlife as well as for humans. However, since the fruit of the most popular cultivar here is tart to the human sense of taste unless it is fully ripe, it is probably more desirable when used in jams, jellies, pies or wines.

Persimmon (Diospyros kaki)

The persimmon (Diospyros kaki), Chinese in origin, is a wonderful fruit which unfortunately has had a reputation for doing poorly in southern Florida. Most of us think of persimmon as a California crop. After all, it was introduced there in the mid-19th century. However, its popularity has led to the creation of more than 2,000 cultivars, and Richard Lyons’ Nursery has come upon a hybrid that succeeds in our area.

Fittingly named Triumph, this very tasty cultivar will now allow growers in southern Florida to harvest a fruit––sometimes sold under the name Sharon––that is low in fats, high in dietary fiber, and possessed of anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-hemorrhagic properties.

Persimmon trees are also ornamentally appealing, growing to a moderate size and featuring glossy green leaves. When laden with fruit, they are particularly eye-catching. Triumph bears a tomato-shaped fruit that should be picked when mature––that is, fully-colored but still hard. Left to soften on the tree, the fruit will begin to attract hungry wildlife. The best practice is to leave picked fruit out at room temperature until it softens and its astringency has disappeared. Triumph grows at a very deliberate rate and will not overwhelm even small yards.

Jaboticaba (Myrciaria cauliflora)

Jaboticaba, a native of South America, was introduced to Florida just over 100 years ago, reportedly in Brevard County. It grows very slowly and, in the shallow soils of southern Florida, rarely exceeds 15 ft. (The slow growth rate also makes Jaboticaba popular as a bonsai subject.) While the tree prefers mildly acidic soils, it adapts fairly well to alkaline sites, especially when good nutrition is provided. For best fruiting, trees should be grown in full sun, and the soil at the planting site should be well-aerated and well-drained.

Although a young Jaboticaba may not begin to bloom for eight years, given appropriate moisture and fertilization it will eventually flower and fruit several times a year. The flowers are small and white, and the leathery skin of Jaboticaba fruit ripens in a range of color from purplish-maroon to almost black. The period from flowering to fruit harvest is encouragingly short––20-30 days. The fruit, which ripens to an inch or so in diameter, has a grapelike appearance, but contains just 1-4 large seeds. The gelatinous flesh is white to pink, and its flavor ranges from sweet to sub acid.  Since the fruit has a fairly short shelf life, it is usually eaten fresh, but is also used to make jams, jellies, pies, and alcoholic beverages.

Richard Lyons’ Nursery currently has all of these plants in stock.

Brachychiton acerifolius: No Shrinking Violet

Australia is known for its vast array of interesting plants. Among them are 30-plus species and natural hybrids of the genus Brachychiton. Some of those species make small trees with modest floral characteristics. But B. acerifolius is decidedly not made in that mold. Perhaps this species’ common name––Illawarra Flame Tree––provides a clue to its flowering traits. When in bloom during the dry season, its scarlet flowers have no problem attracting attention from a distance. Often this show occurs when the tree is semi-bare; its degree of deciduousness is related to the level of winter rainfall.

B. acerifolius is native along subtropical portions of Australia’s east coast from New South Wales northward into Queensland. That means, among other things, that mature specimens are normally able to tolerate temperatures down into the mid-20s. Although the species can reach significant heights in deeper soils within its native habitat, it usually tops out in the 30-35 ft. range in southern Florida.

The Illawarra Flame Tree’s attributes are not confined to its flowering habits. It is not only reasonably fast-growing, but also long-lived. Specimens in Australia last for 50-150 years. Portions of its trunk remain green for a long time, and the bark finally turns light gray in later years. The foliage is also quite attractive. The species name, acerifolius, means maple-like, and, indeed, its leaves can be deeply-lobed like those of the beautiful temperate zone genus Acer.

B. acerifolius should be grown in full sun in soil that drains well. Good pruning practices will reap great benefits. They include making cuts every three years to guarantee a dominant leader by eliminating competing leaders. (It is only coincidence that this sounds like the description of a political dictatorship.) It is also wise to anticipate which of the lower branches might create obstacles as the tree’s stature increases. It is better to remove such branches while their diameters are still relatively small.

While this species responds well to ample moisture, once established it is drought-tolerant. To enhance blooming, use a fertilizer formulated for flowering and fruit trees, i.e., one with substantial phosphorus.

The Illawarra Flame Tree can be found at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 15-gal. containers.

Iochroma: A Very Down-to-Earth Plant

What are the odds that a plant native to elevations more than a mile above sea level in the Andes could grow well in southern Florida? Probably no better than for the lion to lie down with the lamb. But, amazingly, Iochroma cyanea beats those odds.

I. cyanea is endemic to the Ecuadorean Andes in the range between 5,850 and 8,125 ft. above sea level. By anyone’s definition, that’s cold country. Yet studies conducted at the USDA’s National Germplasm Repository in Miami demonstrated that various cultivars of the species are remarkably amenable to the lowland hot, steamy climate of southern Florida.

I. cyanea is a fast-growing shrub that matures to 4-5 ft. tall. Both its leaves and young stems are soft and pubescent, or fuzzy. Stems turn from green to gray-green with age. The plant’s pubescence alone gives this species good ornamental value, but its blooming characteristics are what make it special. Its flowers are long, tubular and pendulous, clustered in groups of 5-20 at branch tips, and in our region the species stays in bloom virtually year-round.

Iochroma is at its showiest when grown in full sun. It should be planted in good organic material. Ample moisture is important, but watering can be reduced during the winter months. Regular fertilization with a ‘palm special’ fertilizer is also recommended. It is advisable to prune plants back annually by one-third to one-half. That practice not only works as a check on the species’ rapid growth, but encourages even more prolific blooms since its flowers develop on new wood.

I. cyanea also performs well as a container plant. When a potted specimen becomes rootbound, it can develop woody stems and start to lose lower leaves. However, the plant can be reinvigorated by cutting the stems back hard to just a few nodes, and thinning the dense rootball before repotting it in a fresh soil mix.

Richard Lyons’ Nursery grows 3-gal. Iochroma cultivars that produce either pale blue or red flowers.

Madre de Cacao: A True Multi-Tasker

The pea (Fabaceae) family of plants is not only among the largest in the world––at about 19,000 species––but also one of the most useful to humanity. And within that distinguished family, Madre de Cacao (Gliricidia sepium) may well be the second-most significant species, behind only the Lead Tree (Leucaena leucocephala).

G. sepium has its origins in tropical dry forests of Mexico and Central America, but, because of its versatility, it has been distributed to tropical regions around the world. Here are some of the attributes that make this tree so popular:

A fast-growing and leafy species, it was planted by the Aztecs to provide shade for cacao plantations. That application is the source of the common name Madre de Cacao. Over centuries, it has also come to be used to shade coffee, tea and vanilla plants.

The tree’s nitrogen-fixing properties make it valuable to the improvement of agricultural soils.

Its ability to root just from cuttings has made G. sepium a major source of living fenceposts. Straight-growing cuttings placed close together provide an inexpensive source of fencing material. That quality is the source for another of its common names: quickstick.

The tree’s dense wood not only renders it an excellent, virtually smokeless, source of fuel, but also makes it valuable for manufacturing into tool handles, furniture and even more demanding construction-related implements.

The leaves and bark of G. sepium are used in some countries to treat skin diseases in humans. It is also said that constituents of the tree are effective in combating ulcers, headaches, fever and tumors.

There are reports of G. sepium being utilized to eradicate rodents or to kill or suppress insects and fungi.

The leaves of Madre de Cacao provide an excellent, protein-rich source of fodder for certain livestock, particularly goats.

Now, dear homeowner, we at Richard Lyons’ Nursery recognize that you may have opted not to raise a goat herd in your backyard––and you are well within your rights to live with that deprivation––so you might wonder what benefits would accrue to you for planting a specimen of G. sepium in your yard. The answer is that, besides its many utilitarian applications, it is also a very nice ornamental tree.

While a vigorous grower, Madre de Cacao does not become very tall, ranging in height from 6-33 ft. It has a smooth trunk, with whitish to gray-brown coloration. In its wintertime flowering season, it produces clusters of pinkish blossoms or white depending on the cultivar. If not provided supplemental irrigation during rainless parts of the winter, it will behave as a deciduous species. It is tolerant of alkaline soils and drought, and it will leaf out vigorously after being cut back hard.

G. sepium is available in several sizes at Richard Lyons’ Nursery.