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.


Featuring the Monkeypod Tree (Monkeys Not Included)

One of the outstanding ornamental trees on earth is Albizia saman. Native from northern South America through Central America, and perhaps into the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, it has been distributed into the Old World tropics and climatic niches as far north as Hawaii. So popular is it that it has accumulated a host of common names, but it is perhaps best known as the Monkeypod Tree or Rain Tree. Along the way, botanists have moved it from the genus Samanea to the genus Albizia, making it a relative of the Mimosa (A. julibrissin), a tree well-known to anyone who has spent a summer in the southern U.S.

A. saman is a very broad, symmetrical tree that can attain impressive proportions when grown in rich, deep soils. While Alexander von Humboldt was in the midst of exploring the Americas for several years starting in 1799, he came upon a huge specimen near Maracay, Venezuela. He measured the wondrous discovery. Though it was only 60 ft. high, the diameter of the trunk was 9 ft. and the circumference of the crown was 576 ft. In 1933 the tree, known as Samán de Güere, was officially made a national monument. By 1950, it was in a state of deterioration, having been sullied by lightning strikes and other insults. Preservation efforts kept it going a long time, but a storm in September 2000 knocked over the rotting trunk.

Another notable A. saman, located on the island of Tobago, was used in the 1960 filming of the movie Swiss Family Robinson as the host of the family’s treehouse. The tree, still alive, was said to be 200 ft. tall, but that figure may have reflected a degree of studio hype.

In southern Florida, the Monkeypod Tree is a much more modest plant, thanks to the region’s nutrient-poor soils. The state champion A. saman (as of August 2012), located at Montgomery Botanical Center in Coral Gables, is 50 ft. high and has a crown circumference of just 123 ft.

A. saman is fast-growing and easy to cultivate. The breadth of its crown makes it an ideal shade tree. Its small, pink, powder puff-like flowers are most prolific when the tree is grown in full sun. It responds well to regular irrigation, so long as the planting site is well-drained. Where there is a strong seasonal reduction of rainfall, the tree is known to be semi-deciduous.

The Monkeypod Tree is not only a prized ornamental plant, but is also valued in many places for its wood. Shrinkage is minimal, and its dark brown heartwood polishes up well. The wood is amenable to carving and is used to manufacture musical instruments and furniture. It is employed as both plywood and veneer.

A. saman is available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery 15-gal. containers.