Tropical Fruit – A Tasty Survey, Part VI

This week we continue our survey of the interesting tropical fruit species that can be grown in southern Florida.

Sapodilla (Manilkara zapota)

This species is not only among the most ornamental of tropical fruit trees, but it is blessed with long life, strength and wind resistance. Because the sapodilla has been popular for many centuries, its native range is a bit hazy; however, it is thought to have been the Yucatan (and nearby parts of southern Mexico), northern Belize, and northeastern Guatemala. It has probably been cultivated all over Central America for millenia, and during the age of colonization, it was distributed into the Old World. For instance, it reached Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1802. Closer to home, it was long ago spread throughout Caribbean islands and nearby land masses, where it is often known as níspero.

M. zapota in southern Florida matures to about 45 ft. in height, with a spread of about 40 ft. It is fairly slow-growing, a feature that contributes to its wind resistance. It features dark, smooth, glossy leaves and a dense crown. One of its most useful cultural traits is its comfort with limestone soils, so long as good drainage is provided. The species is also salt-tolerant and, once established, drought-tolerant. Accordingly, it is a good candidate for installation in poor, unirrigated sites. For optimum performance, it should be grown in full sun. It has a well-earned reputation as an excellent shade tree.

Sapodilla flowers are white, but not particularly showy. They yield sweet-tasting fuzzy, brown-skinned fruits that mature to about 4 in. in diameter. The period from flowering to fruit ripeness is about 10 months. The color of the fruit’s flesh ranges from dark brown to reddish-brown to pale yellow, and the texture is grainy, likened by some to that of a very ripe pear. The fruit is ready for picking and eating when the skin softens. Immature sapodillas have a hard skin which exudes a white latex, called chicle, when cut open. Chicle was an early source of chewing gum. It was introduced to the U.S. in 1866 by the infamous Mexican general, Santa Anna, upon his arrival in, of all places, Staten Island, where he lived in exile for a few years. Later the name of the latex was incorporated into the commercial brand Chiclets.

Elephant Apple (Dillenia indica)

This quaintly-named species is a midsized tree native to a wide swath of southeastern Asia—from the Indian subcontinent south and east into parts of China and Vietnam and then through Thailand to lMalaysia and Indonesia. It was first described botanically in the mid-18th century by Carolus Linnaeus. It is yet another fruit tree that doubles as a very attractive ornamental.

In southern Florida, D. indica can reach about 40 ft. high at maturity. It develops a nice rounded crown, and its leaves are likewise attention-getting—leathery, toothed at the margins, and prominently veined. Its large, fragrant flowers, featuring white petals and yellow sepals, are also appealing. The tree is at its best when planted in a well-drained soil in full sun.

The fruits of this species grow to 4-5 in. in diameter. They’re called Elephant Apples because Asian elephants are crazy about them. As a result, our pachyderm friends are important in the dispersal of Dillenia seeds, if you know what we mean. The reduction in elephant populations might bode poorly for the future of D. indica, but the species has tucked an alternative system of distribution in its back pocket: Although the hard fruits can’t be accommodated by small animals, they do soften on the forest floor during the dry season, after which they can be ingested by squirrels, macaques, and rodents. Happily, the seeds tend not to lose viability over the course of the dry season.

The fruit of the Elephant Apple tree is acidic and fibrous, so it tends not to be eaten out of hand. Rather, it is valued as a component of many food dishes. In India, the pulp is used with spices and coconut in the creation of chutneys. The fruit is also used in drinks, and is also a component of jams, jellies and curries.

A very versatile species, D. indica is said to possess medicinal properties, and its wood is sufficiently strong to be used for gunstocks and light construction.

These two popular species are available in several sizes at Richard Lyons’ Nursery.

Tropical Fruit – A Tasty Survey, Part V

This week we look at more of the interesting tropical fruit species that can be grown in southern Florida.

Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica)

Right off the bat, we have a couple of confessions to make: Loquat is not a tropical fruit, and in spite of its specific epithet ‘japonica,’ it’s also not Japanese. The truth is that it is native to the temperate middle of China. Its pleasing taste led to its introduction to Japan, where it has been cultivated for over a thousand years. It is now just as likely to be called Japanese Plum as Chinese Plum, and Japan is the world’s leading commercial producer of the fruit. So popular is loquat that in Asia alone some 800 cultivars have been developed.

E. japonica grows as a tall shrub or small tree. In our part of the world, it matures in the 10-25 ft. range. The plant has a lot of desirable characteristics: It bears leathery, textured, lanceolate leaves with serrated edges. The leaves are dark green on the upper surface and light green below. Flowers are fragrant, and fruit of the cultivars most commonly found in Florida ripens in the yellow-orange range.

Loquat is a winter-flowering plant. That can make fruit production in the southern Gulf states unpredictable, because frost at the wrong time can kill flowers and developing fruit. Fortunately, that’s a small risk in southern Florida, and fruiting here is often abundant. Depending on the cultivar, the flavor ranges from sweet to subacid to acid.

E. japonica flowers best when grown in full sun. Established plants exhibit some drought tolerance. Fruit is high in Vitamin A, and the plant’s dense wood is valued in furniture-making.

Pineapple (Ananas comosus)

The pineapple is a very interesting plant. People are generally surprised to learn that it is a bromeliad, and, in fact, it has the greatest economic significance of any bromeliad. The plant doesn’t just produce a popular fruit—actually an aggregate, a collection of berries that coalesce into a single body. It also contains the enzyme bromelain, which is processed into meat tenderizer, and its leaves provide a valuable fiber. The genus name ‘Ananas’ comes from the word that the Tupí, a Brazilian indigenous people, used for the plant. ‘Pineapple’ probably arose from an English translation of the term that Columbus coined while under the misconception that he was looking at a conifer.

A century ago, pineapples were grown commercially in Miami-Dade County, generally in the Miami neighborhood known as Lemon City. But because the crop is slow to mature and because land values began to rise, the farmland was sold off for development. Currently Richard Lyons’ Nursery grows an edible pineapple, Ananas comosus (Smooth Cayenne Pineapple), which is very flavorful, but much smaller than the commercially-grown pineapples produced around the tropics.

As an aside, it may surprise some to find out that Hawaii is no longer a significant source of pineapples. Just as in southern Florida, land values in the islands made it uneconomical to farm pineapples commercially.  By 2013, Hawaii-grown pineapples constituted just a tenth of a percent of the world’s production!

Spanish Lime (Melicoccus bijugatus)

Here is another of those species blessed with a multitude of common names. To cite just a few, it is known as Spanish lime, mamoncillo, genip, and quenepa. Native to northern South America and Margarita Island off Venezuela, M. bijugatus has been distributed widely in the New World and as far away as the Philippines. It has been grown in southern Florida for at least 75 years.

The popularity of Spanish lime is based on its value as both an ornamental and a fruiting species. It has become a reliable street tree in many places, including Key West. Happily, it is tolerant of dry conditions, increasingly so as it matures, but does not withstand flooding well. M. bijugatus is also quite comfortable growing in our region’s limestone soils. It grows slowly, and may eventually reach 85 ft. Good horticultural practices pay off with this species. After the first year in the ground, a pruning regimen should be started to encourage lateral branching. As time goes by, pruning practices should also include keeping the canopy open by removing crisscrossing branches and dead wood.

Spanish lime produces fragrant, small, white flowers which attract hummingbirds and bees. This species is almost always dioecious, so fruit production will depend on having both a male and a female tree. Mamoncillo fruit ripens in loose clusters and is popular simply eaten out of hand. The fruit tastes best if allowed to ripen on the tree, and the entire fruiting cluster should be picked after one of the fruits is sampled for ripeness. The skin is green, smooth, thin, and brittle. Consumers usually just rip it open, pop the pulp into their mouths and slurp it off its prominent seed. Unopened fruit keeps well, so it can be carried around for days.

These three species are available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in various sizes.

Tropical Fruit – A Tasty Survey, Part IV

The topic of confusion over common names is too big to confine to just one article in this series. Accordingly, this week’s installment deals with two more fruit species that are also called sapotes.

White Sapote (Casimiroa edulis)

This tree, native from eastern Mexico to Costa Rica, has a long history in California, where it was introduced by Franciscan monks in 1810. But despite the development of tasty cultivars there, most of the White Sapotes in the Golden State are used as ornamentals. Since part of the species’ native range includes highland areas, it has some tolerance to the cool nights of southern California in addition to its amenability to cultivation at the lower elevations of southern Florida. The distinct dry season that we normally experience encourages fruit production.

C. edulis is a member of the Rutaceae, a family which includes citrus. It is thus unrelated to the other ‘sapotes’ discussed in this series. The species can reach just over 50 ft. in the wild, but in our region’s thin soils, it attains more modest proportions, maturing in the 15-40 ft. range. Its warty bark is light gray in color. White Sapote produces egg-shaped (ovoid) or round fruit maturing to 1-4 in. diameter. The fruit’s inedible skin is green while developing, but turns yellow upon ripening. The edible pulp has a range of flavors—vanilla, peach, banana, pear—and a smooth texture that has been likened to that of avocado. The seeds should not be eaten.

White Sapote is quite adaptable to both limestone and sandy soils, provided that it is planted on well-drained sites. This species is so appreciative of strong drainage that it may be useful to mound soil at the planting site before digging a substantial planting hole. The watering requirements of this species decrease the longer the tree has been growing in the ground. In fact, overwatering a mature specimen can cause it to decline. For best performance, C. edulis should be planted in full sun.

Black Sapote (Diospyros nigra)

Yet another in the long line of trees known as ‘sapote’ is Diospyros nigra, a species native from Mexico into Central America, the Caribbean and as far south as Colombia. Despite the similarity of their native ranges, Black Sapote and White Sapote are not related. Instead, this species belongs to the family Ebenaceae, which includes persimmon and ebony.

Another common name of D. nigra is Chocolate Pudding Fruit, and with good reason: Its ripe pulp mimics chocolate pudding in color, texture and flavor. The tree’s smooth-skinned fruit is about the shape of a tomato and matures to 2-4 in. in diameter. The inedible skin is usually olive green in color upon ripening.

Like many desirable New World plants, Black Sapote achieved widespread distribution around the tropics through the efforts of Spanish explorers, who brought the species to the Philippines in the 1700s. About 100 years ago, cuttings and seeds began to find their way into the United States. Black Sapote ultimately proved more successful in southern Florida than in southern California, because, unlike White Sapote, the species is not found natively in highland areas, where it would be adapted to withstand the colder temperatures commonly experienced on the west coast.

Even if D. nigra were not a fruiting tree, it would be desirable as an ornamental. It features leathery, glossy, dark green foliage and a black-barked, furrowed trunk. While capable of maturing to 80 ft. or more in its native habitat, the species tops out in the 25-35 ft. range in southern Florida. It is a fairly slow grower in early years, but moves at a somewhat faster clip later on. For ideal appearance and fruit production, Black Sapote should be planted in a full-sun exposure. Happily, it is amenable to the poor soils of our region, so long as good drainage is provided. However, it is less tolerant of drought than White Sapote.

D. nigra is rather tolerant of windy conditions, particularly when it is pruned to open up the canopy. Periodic pruning also encourages lateral, rather than upright, growth, a desirable goal with any tree that produces fruit which the owner wants to keep from splitting open when it hits the ground.

Both White Sapote and Black Sapote are available in multiple sizes at Richard Lyons’ Nursery.


Tropical Fruit – A Tasty Survey, Part III

This week’s installment on tropical fruit species deals with a subject which has been addressed in this space before—the confusion that can occur from relying on common names. What happens often is that a single species may have multiple common names, and that condition can develop even in a relatively small geographic area, particularly where mountains or forests historically have limited access by one human population to another.

More rarely, unrelated species have been accorded common names that are so similar that bewilderment reigns. Such is the case with what we call mamey / mammee / mamee sapote / mamey sapote / zapote mamey / mammee apple / mamey amarillo / mamey colorado / zapote rojo / mamey sapote / zapote grande / mamey de Cartagena / zapote de Santo Domingo. These common names—and many more—are found around the Americas, but, perhaps surprisingly, they are attached to just two species. Both are fruit trees, but that is where the similarity ends, because they are members of distinctly different families.

There’s actually no mystery behind the source of the confusion: The word sapote/zapote is derived from Nahuatl (Aztec), the language of the Nahua people, who live primarily in Central Mexico. In Nahuatl, the word ‘tzapotl’ refers to all soft, sweet fruit. Over time, settlers in the New World came to apply the term sapote or zapote to local tree species that produce soft, sweet fruit. Thus, for example, Colombians and Cubans have equal standing to claim that they grow the true sapote, but they’re talking about unrelated species of fruiting trees. (Chris Rollins, now retired from a long career as manager of the Fruit & Spice Park in the Redland, has said that at least seven distinct fruit tree species go by the name sapote or zapote around the Americas.)

Let’s try to slog through the Swamp of Confusion and come out the other end with our wits intact.

The tree known as sapote/zapote in Colombia is Mammea americana, of the family Calophyllaceae. It bears a resemblance to its well-known relative in the southern U.S., Magnolia grandiflora. Capable of reaching a height of 59-69 ft. in its native range, M. americana bears dark green, glossy, leathery leaves measuring about 4 X 8 in. and fragrant white flowers. Its fruit has a hard, roundish, brown rind about 4-8 in. in diameter. The edible flesh of the fruit, colored orange or yellow, is wrapped in a dry, white membrane that should be peeled away. The fruit is always fiberless, but its texture varies in softness and juiciness.

Native to South America, M. americana is now cultivated as far away as western Africa and Hawaii. Its gateway to southern Florida was probably the Bahamas. Though the tree prefers deep, rich soils, it has proven adaptable to our limestone soils. Various parts of M. americana are reputed to have medicinal qualities, as well as the capacity to kill or repel a number of insect pests.

Among the many common names applied to this species are mammee, zapote mamey, mammee apple, mamey amarillo (yellow mamey), mamey de Cartagena, and zapote de Santo Domingo.

The tree known as sapote/zapote in Cuba is Pouteria sapota, of the family Sapotaceae. It is native to Mexico, Central America, and Cuba, but began to be carried to other New World sites hundreds of years ago. Distribution was probably slowed because the seeds of P. sapota have short viability. As far as can be determined, P. sapota was introduced into Florida in the mid-1880s. The fruit is now quite popular in southern Florida, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. It is not well-known outside those places, but there is some evidence that interest is developing in various Old World countries.

P. sapota possesses a stout trunk and a small number of large scaffold branches that support a spreading crown. While capable of reaching more than 140 ft. in its native range, this species tops out at about 40 ft. in southern Florida. It produces leaves as large as 4 X 8 in. Leaf undersides are light green or brown, and are fuzzy when young. Its small white flowers tend to cluster at the ends of small branches. The thick, woody fruit of P. sapota, covered by a reddish-brown skin, is elongated, measuring as much as 3 X 8 in. The flesh of the fruit, smooth and usually fiberless, varies in color in a range from dark red through salmon pink and features a distinctive, sweet, almond-like flavor. In addition to being good to eat out of hand, P. sapota is frequently used to flavor ice cream, milkshakes or jellies.

There are lots of cultivars of P. sapota in southern Florida. IFAS reports that the cultivars ‘Pantin’ and ‘Magana’ account for close to 100% of the sapotes grown commercially in the state. Fruiting periods vary greatly among the cultivars, so it’s possible by careful selection to have trees in fruit year-round; and these trees fruit prolifically.

P. sapota does have one important similarity to M. americana: It tolerates a large range of soils, so long as they are well-drained. It is particularly important with P. sapota to avoid buying a rootbound specimen.

Among the many common names applied to this species are mamey, mamee sapote, mamey sapote, mamey colorado (red mamey), zapote rojo (red sapote), and zapote grande.

Richard Lyons Nursery carries M. americana and P. sapota in various sizes.

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.