Tropical Fruit – A Tasty Survey, Part VII
This week we look at more of the interesting tropical fruit trees that can be grown in southern Florida.
Ice Cream Bean (Inga edulis)
It’s no mystery how this tree earned its common name: From the sweetness and texture of its popular fruit. Word about I. edulis got out so long ago that its exact native range is not certain, but experts believe it was found from Mexico south through Central America and into the Amazon Basin. In deep soils, the tree can mature to a height of 60-95 ft., but the shallow and nutrient-poor soils of our region modify its size.
The Ice Cream Bean tree produces a flower spike that bears fragrant white blossoms. The fruit is a ribbed cylindrical pod about a yard long. The seeds are surrounded by the sweet pulp, which can be eaten out of hand or used to flavor a number of dishes.
I. edulis is a very versatile plant in the tropics. It makes an excellent shade tree, and that means that it is valuable not only as an ornamental for streets and parks, but in agriculture to protect cacao, coffee or tea plants from intense sun. And its size is easy to control, because it is amenable to being pruned back hard. This species also is a source of construction-grade wood and, in folk medicine, a treatment for various ailments.
I. edulis is often found growing next to rivers or in floodplains that are inundated for several months a year. Nevertheless, it can also tolerate some drought once established. Happily for residents of southern Florida, this species is not particular about soil quality. In fact, as a nitrogen-fixer, it is capable of improving soils.
Macadamia (Macadamia integrifolia)
The guillotine was named for the man who helped develop its prototype. Not everyone would want to be remembered exactly like that. Dr. John Macadam, on the other hand, was a very lucky man. A friend of the 19th-century Australian scientist named a tree genus after him in 1858, and 31 years later the first commercial Macadamia plantation was established. The nut tree has gone on to be cultivated in a number of places around the world, particularly South Africa and the United States. So far, it is the only native Australian plant to become a major commercial food crop.
M. integrifolia is, like the other three Macadamia species, endemic to Australia. It is native to rainforests of southeast Queensland. A small tree that matures to about 30 ft. in southern Florida, it possesses ornamental as well as agricultural value. Its dark green, glossy, oblong leaves—often featuring wavy margins—create an attractive spreading canopy. The tree produces pendulous white to pink flowers, followed by a fruit measuring 1-1½ in. in diameter. Although the fruit’s outer husk is hard, the wall, or shell, of the kernel is even denser, and cannot be cracked by a typical handheld device.
Macadamia is not very particular about soils, although it is averse to heavy clay compositions. Good drainage is a must, and in areas of rocky soil, a deep planting hole should be dug. The species likes ample moisture, even heavy rainfall, but is also tolerant of drought once established. Its tolerance of salt air is rated as good. It should be planted in full sun for best performance.
Jaboticaba (Myrciaria cauliflora)
Jaboticaba is the Brazilian term for four very similar species of Myrciaria that produce one of the more interesting-looking tropical fruit trees in the southern half of Florida. The name of the best-known of those species, M. cauliflora, suggests why: It is cauliflorous, meaning that its flowers and fruits are borne directly on the woody stems and trunk of the tree. Jaboticaba is native to southeastern Brazil, as well as parts of Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina. Because of that southerly origin, mature specimens can tolerate periods of brief frost into the upper 20s. The species 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. While ample soil moisture is a must for Jaboticaba, good drainage is also essential, so be sure to plant the tree 2-3 in. above the surrounding soil. This genus is not salt-tolerant.
Jaboticaba performs much better in cultivation than under natural conditions. Although a tree may not begin to flower 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 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 subacid. 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. Fruit skins are known to have medicinal value and are said to be processed for anti-cancer compounds. However, consuming the raw skin more often than occasionally is not recommended due to its high tannin content.
These species are available in various sizes at Richard Lyons’ Nursery.