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GARDENS : The White Sapote : An Exotic Fruit Tree at Home in Our Own Backyard

October 04, 1987|BILL SIDNAM

ALTHOUGH THE WHITE SAPOTE originated in Mexico and Central America, adventuresome Southern California gardeners have successfully grown it since the early part of this century. It does particularly well in our coastal valleys. The custard-like flesh of the yellowish-green, apple-shaped fruit is ultrasweet; the flavor has been described as a combination of banana and very sweet peach.

In most cases, this tree, a prodigious bearer of fruit, will start bearing in three to four years. The fruit usually ripens from late summer through November, although some varieties bear fruit almost constantly. The tree gets quite large--25 to 35 feet tall, with a spread of 30 feet. Its foliage is glossy green.

Although the white sapote can be easily grown from seed, it is not recommended; the fruit from a seedling is almost always inferior to that of a named, grafted variety. There are a few reliable varieties for this area. 'Suebelle' is a classic white sapote that has been grown in Southern California for more than 50 years. It produces smooth, round, light-yellow fruit that weighs between three and six ounces. In many climatic zones 'Suebelle' bears fruit nearly all year round, and the flavor is excellent. 'McDill' produces large fruit, as big as a grapefruit, that has a good flavor and texture. The tree is vigorous and reaches the bearing stage at an early age. 'Fiesta' is a dependable producer of good-quality small fruit that has a thicker skin than other varieties (and so does not bruise as easily as most). Other varieties that produce well in Southern California are 'Chapman,' 'Bravo' and 'Vinner.' Your local nursery probably can order you a tree.

After finding a tree, choose a sunny planting site. If you live in the hot interior areas, choose a site that gets only half a day of sun. The white sapote will thrive in a wide range of soils as long as the drainage is good. When you select a planting site, keep in mind that, although the tree does thrive as a lawn tree, some of its prolific crop of fruit will fall to the ground, making a mess. In addition, the roots of the white sapote are far-reaching, often extending 50 feet, so keep the tree away from the house, patio and paving.

Water young trees regularly. Mature trees should be watered deeply every three or four weeks during the dry months. Established trees are quite drought-resistant; they have been known to thrive in vacant lots. To ensure good fruit production, however, water the tree on a regular basis. A mature white sapote tree also will tolerate more cold than an avocado tree. Fertilize in the spring and late summer with a general fruit-tree fertilizer. The white sapote is seldom bothered by insect pests and needs pruning only to shape or control growth.

Pick the fruit when it is still firm; it takes on a yellowish cast when it reaches harvest stage. Allow it to ripen further at room temperature. Before eating it, remove the skin, which has an undesirable flavor.

This fruit does not store well; it deteriorates rapidly after ripening and, because of its low acid content, is not suitable for preserves. The flesh freezes well, however, and a delightful milkshake can be concocted from it.

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