Acotanc: Exotic Fruits in Perth

Exotic Fruits in Perth

Author: Neville Passmore
E-mail: [email protected]
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An astonishing range of fruit-bearing plants can be grown in Perth, from cold climate varieties to tropicals.

I always say that tropical fruits have been very close to my heart for all my life--about four inches away. In other words, it is all directed to things you can eat, and I enjoy very much going to the tropics and getting stuck into some fruit.

My first trip to Bali was about 25 years ago was at a time when avocados were very popular in Perth, about $6 or $7 per fruit. When I hit Bali and you could get a half avocado with prawns and a lovely sauce plus a beer and it all cost about $2.50, I though I was in heaven. That got me really hooked on tropical fruit from that moment. The mango trees David mentioned in Kelmscott was a place I used to visit regularly in the summer time. These enormous trees growing in a sheltered valley, about a hundred years old, sixty or seventy feet high. The thing that blows you away is that you can walk out on one of those branches and pick a walnut. Where else in the world can you hit on such a combination: a real cold-climate plant growing right next to a super-tropical plant?

The business of growing exotic fruits in Perth is very much about microclimates. Home gardeners have discovered that you can grow pawpaws in a heat sink in Perth, and they grow spectacularly well. I just popped some plants in in September this year next to the sweet corn. It was a race, who was going to get to the top of the fence first. They grow like crazy. They are already setting fruit, and next year we will get some results out of those.

What I thought I would do is give you a few anecdotes about some of the fruits I have run across. The first one on my list is acerola, or Barbados cherry. The first plants of this that I saw were really struggling in the winter, so I thought they would be too tropical to grow in Perth. We now have some Californian sweet cultivars from Birdwood Nursery in Queensland. I planted one of these out about nine months ago. It has gone absolutely bananas--it is now two and a half metres high, and I have cut it back twice. It is just starting to do a bit of flowering. It flowers on the old wood, so I am looking forward to some fruits. This one has an incredibly high Vitamin C content, and has great potential from the point of view of helping people to get over early colds and flu. It is summer-fruiting, and the flower looks like a crepe myrtle, lagerstroemia--very ornamental.

Avocadoes have proved to be a good value garden plant. They are a big tree; some will go to 20 m. I can point to a few in Perth that are nearly 30 m in height, so it is not for your everyday back gardens. They can be trained to be a bit shorter than that. The avocado ripeness test: if you pick up an avocado in the supermarket and you clasp it in your hand and give it a bit of a squeeze. If it is as hard as your forehead, it's not ripe. If it is as soft as your cheek, it is too ripe. If it is just like pressing into your nose, eat it.

This is the little Brazil cherry, or pitanga, or Surinam cherry. It grows readily in Perth, a very ornamental plant. The fruit is somewhere between bloody horrible and OK. There is a terrific amount of variability in seedling plants. I always refer to this as a 'good jam-making fruit.' You might feel like using 5 kg of sugar to 1 kg of fruit to get an acceptable result. We haven't seen them much in Australia so far, which is a pity, because they are very pretty fruits and go through a range of colours, yellow, orange, bright red and crimson. The foliage has a very distinctive smell--it is one of the myrtles. I understand that in Brazil it is strewn around the house to repel fleas, flies and mosquitoes.

There is a lot of interest being shown in bamboo as a vegetable. This particular one was growing at a place just north of Perth. A lot of bamboo do extremely well in Perth. The problem is that a lot of gardeners regard them as being pest species because of the stories they have heard of running bamboos running through the garden. There are a number of clumping bamboos that are very efficient at producing wood, they are just a tremendously useful plant.

I am thrilled to report that I just got my first crop of bananas. It is a plantain with a big, gross kind of fruit. They hang on quite well here. I don't think it is a commercial proposition, but certainly for the home gardener it adds a bulk of fruit that you can dry or feed to the kids. This is the flower of a banana. In Thailand this was served to me sliced very thinly with a vinaigrette, and it tasted just like globe artichoke. I thought, Wow, this is a brand new vegetable I didn't know existed.

The black sapote, chocolate pudding fruit as it is sometimes called. I understand that in Cairns this is used to make chocolate mousse. In fact it is hard to buy a real chocolate mousse up there, this was so commonly used. I remember first seeing and tasting this fruit in Carnarvon. John was the officer there, and his common name for it was the 'horse dung fruit,' because when you open it up, it is black with streaks of brown through it. A bit of a marketing exercise is needed here to reverse its fortunes!

This is an area of cactus fruits that I think is quite exciting. This photo was taken on a farm about 120 km north of Perth. It is a five-acre site and is literally loaded up with cereus cactus, Cereus peruvianus, I believe. I have one in my front garden. I didn't plant it, it was there when I arrived. It is about 4 m high with a similar spread--it is enormous. It flowers at night time and makes a fabulous show. A friend who was interested brought some pollen down and pollinated five of the flowers one Saturday night at nine o'clock when they first popped out, and I got five fruit out of it. They are quite delicious, very sweet with a crystalline sort of a texture. A bit of potential there. With the size of this plant, I could get a tonne of fruit, I reckon, if I could get them all pollinated. I suspect that in nature, moths are the pollinating agents. The flower does persist into the morning and collapses about 11 am, so it is possible that bees might do the job.

These are the opuntia, or prickly pears. There is a number of varieties around Perth. They are unbelievably fast growers. They became a pest in some areas of Queensland and were declared a noxious weed in Queensland. One of the interesting uses of this that I learned from an Israeli grower, was that this is one of the most efficient plants as drought stock feed. You grow the plants through the good years. When the bad years come along and there is no feed for your animals, chop these down, use a blow torch to burn off all the thorns, and it is great fodder. The cows actually prefer them, and will eat the opuntias in the good years rather than the grass. The young leaves are quite a lovely vegetable. There is a bit of a trick to handling these. I have a thick pair of rubber gloves to pick them. You need to actually cut the skin off and eat the central part out. The last thing you want to do is get any of those little spines in your mouth. They have a minute hook at the top end, so when they grab you, they grab you good.

I managed to buy some of these cactus fruits last year in China--the price? A$8 per fruit--that's a bloody expensive fruit. These are from a climbing cactus, Hylocereus, and there are a number of different varieties around. My goal as a home gardener is to graft some onto the Cereus and have a series of fruits and get the pollination and fabulous fruits.

Ceriman, or monstera, are very much a home garden sort of a fruit. Most gardeners aren't aware they can actually eat the fruit. I have never seen it in a market in Australia, but there is a gradual interest in growing it. One of its great advantages is that it is a fruit you can grow under shade. A lot of our gardens consist of more and more shade as the trees get bigger; this is one of the few fruits that will succeed in that situation.

Cape gooseberry--a real great back door fruit, I reckon. I don't know if it will ever become a commercial fruit, although every now and then you do see punnets of them in the market. It is very easy to grow, by cuttings or seed. The beaut thing is that there is a little covering around the fruit that keeps out most of the bugs. Rarely have I seen this struck by fruit fly. You can make beautiful jellies, jams and pies from them. I know that improved cultivars exist, but I haven't seen them. Ground cherry is a relative, and tomatillo is a Mexican relative used to make salsa.

Exotic citrus. This is the Kaffir lime, a very popular item for Thai cooking. The lime leaf is sliced up finely and is quite delicious. The national dish of Thailand, Tom Yum soup, can't be made without this. The interesting thing is that up until three or four years ago, you couldn't buy the green leaves, and we were importing something like a million dollar's worth of dry Kaffir lime leaves out of South East Asia. That has changed dramatically, and you can grow it successfully for home garden crops. The fruit of the lime is weird-looking. The rind and skin are used in cooking, imparting a lovely sweet, aromatic flavour.

This looks like a grapefruit on steroids. It is actually a pommelo. This is popular, particularly in Thailand, which is probably the epicentre of the love affair of the world with pommelo. It is occasionally being seen in the home garden scene, and grows well in our Mediterranean climate. These have a very thick, leathery cover on each of the segments, which you basically have to cut off. The flavour is sweet and quite unlike grapefruit. You might have an image in your mind when you start to take your first taste that it going to be a grapefruit, but it is totally different and quite delicious.

Dates and coconut fruits. There are people trying desperately to grow coconuts in Perth. I always say, "You haven't got a hope." Unless you grow it in a pot indoors, because it is just too cold in our winter. It will be interesting if anyone ever gets one to fruit. There are some date plants around the Perth metropolitan area that do produce. The sweetest ones I every tasted were out of Carnarvon, from the research station. They were like honey. A magnificent fresh fruit.

Custard apples have started to lift off in Perth, not only as a purchased fruit, but as a home garden fruit. They do very well here. African Pride has the happy situation of self-pollination. Other varieties, including Pink's Mammoth, almost need to be hand-pollinated in order to get them to produce fruit. They are magnificent big fruit. Once you get the hang of it, it is not a lot of work to ensure a good crop.

Feijoa is a superb fruit for the Perth area. It is one of the most cold-tolerant of all the exotic fruits. The interesting thing that I find is the number of people who ask me, "I have this fruit on my plant...will it poison my children?" I say, "No, no. It is actually good-eating." It is only being cultivated for its beautiful flower. When you tell them that the white petals are also edible, very sweet...if you get enough of them you can make jam that is nice on ice cream and fruit salad...they get a double bonus. It is a highly ornamental plant, a small tree or a large spreading shrub, two-tone foliage that is grey on the underside and dark green on the top. It can be trained in many ways.

A white-fleshed guava which is available in Perth. Guavas grow like stink. If you want to start growing exotic fruit in Perth, this is a good one to begin with, because they are very reliable, fruit well. They are extremely attractive to fruit fly. That is something you have to weigh up. Fruit fly will fly 50 km to find a guava, I reckon. The fruits are strongly perfumed. It interested me in South East Asia to find that guavas were sold as a vegetable at a very green stage. You could get a little container of sauce with flecks of chilli that you could pour over the flesh and eat it as a street fruit, or street vegetable.

The ice cream bean, Inga edulis, is a very exciting fruit. It grows extremely quickly. I think it comes close to growing as fast as some of our eucalyptus. It grows to about 6 or 7 m in about 4 years. It has beautiful flowers followed by a pod. The white, fibrous material that looks like cotton wool surrounding the seeds is quite sweet. It is a delicious fruit. I don't know that I would say that it was a dead-ringer for vanilla ice cream, but all the same, it is very pleasant. I experienced a taste of a frozen product in Queensland. The pods were picked at full ripeness and thrown in the freezer. When it was pulled out, you could eat the flesh as it was beginning to thaw. They were really quite lovely. It is a handsome, leguminous tree. I found that it has one great susceptibility, in my own garden, and that is soccer balls. The kids just belted the hell out of my tiny seedling tree, but it has come back, surprisingly, after losing all of the shoots. It looks like it is going to survive.

The jaboticaba, or Brazillian tree grape--I think this has terrific potential, not only as a home garden crop, but also for commercial cropping in Perth. It grows well here. I have seen it right up the Queensland coastal belt. It produces cauliflorously: the flowers and fruit form on the old stems. It is capable of producing 4 or 5 crops in one twelve-month season. The fruits are fruit fly-proof. The skin is so thick the fruit flies can't get into them. It is a highly productive tree. The wine, apparently, is quite delicious. (tape ends--unknown amount lost)

(tape turned over) ...cincturing, and that seems to.... They say it is about a 4 or 5-year exercise from a started plant. I have managed to get them fruiting earlier than that. Once it starts, it seems quite reliable. My father has a tree, and he is getting at least three crops a year from the one tree. The foliage is quite attractive. It looks a lot like the miniature lilli pillis. The fruit is lovely, I enjoy it very much. About 25% of people don't care for it, and the other 75% say it is OK. That's not bad.

The jujube tree, Zizyphus. Interestingly, in Perth, you tend to find this tree out the back of Italian market gardens. It is a handsome tree, extremely tough, from China. It is much revered in that country. We have actually got some good cultivars. It has good ornamental possibilities with a double bonus of some fruit you can pick. In the north end of WA it is a noxious weed. I don't believe there is any problem down here. We have actually brought plants in to Perth to sell.

I regarded jackfruit as one of the impossible fruits for Perth until I heard from David only a few weeks ago that there is a plant producing fruit in north Perth. That is one of the fun things about tropical fruit. You sort of pontificate about it, saying, Oh, no chance of that one. Rambutan in Perth--well, someone in Riverton has done it. I'm just going to keep very quiet from now on. Jackfruits can be very big--up to 40 kg for one fruit. The edible part is the arils around the seeds. It has a jelly-like, almost leathery texture. It is used commonly in curries. One of the surprising things is that the seed is close to being as good as a chestnut, I am told. They can be roasted and are delicious. They are also used in cooking in South East Asia, as well.

Kei apple is a South African fruit. It is not widely cultivated in Perth for fruit, but it has some of the most vicious thorns you can imagine. It is like living barb wire. It is fantastic for keeping people out of your property.

Longan, or dragon's eye fruit. This is much more successful in Perth than its relative, the lichee. I think it has tremendous potential. I am certainly for cropping and marketing, because the Chinese people know it so well.

Loquat is a great back door fruit, easy to grow. There are some excellent cultivars coming in from Japan which have a high flesh component compared to the seed.

Lichees are the most difficult fruit to grow in the world, I reckon. Perth has a particular climate that makes it a real niche market possibility, for the long term. We can produce lichees here. We can produce fruits out of the northern season, that coincide with the Chinese New Year. When they find out about that, we will have big business. In the first couple of years, the trees need shelter, like this little hoochie.

Macadamia nuts, great performers.

Mangos do well in Perth. Once again, I think we have a great opportunity for a niche market because of the lateness of the season. Here in Perth we are talking March, April. We are right at the end of the national season. Sujit Dey has been a real pioneer in sorting out protocols for growing mangos successfully in this area. I was going to show you how to eat a mango, literally in a bath, surrounded by mangos. But this is probably a good point to say it's been lovely, and thank you so much.