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GROWING EXOTIC : With a Little Effort, Tasty Subtropical Fruits Can Thrive in Orange County Soil

December 15, 1988|ROBERT KNIGHT | Times Staff Writer

Some of us would be happy just to have an orange tree in our back yards, or a small patch of strawberries.

Not Eunice Messner. Her idea of horticulture is more exotic. Cherimoyas. Guavas. Pummelos. Persimmons. Sapotes. Kiwis. Passion fruit. Bananas. Papayas. In short, anything rare and tasty that can grow on the slope behind her Anaheim Hills home.

Subtropical fruits can thrive almost anywhere in the county, but Messner has the ideal locale because her slope has a southern exposure in a canyon that gets quite hot in the summer. The size of her irrigated kingdom is ample testimony to her 10 years of growing exotic fruits.

"I started out with some eucalyptus but planted one fruit tree and that was it," Messner says. Now she has about 80 fruit-bearing trees, plus a small collection of vegetables.

Because the trees have varying seasons, Messner enjoys fresh fruit year round (she no longer cans any of it, preferring to give what she can't consume to friends).

Her success is by no means unique.

More and more people are growing exotic fruits in Southern California. The bulk of them in Orange County are, like Messner, hobbyists active in the Rare Fruit Growers Assn., which has a county membership of about 115 and a worldwide membership of 2,700, says Pat Sawyer of Fullerton, a past president of the association.

All the members have collections of subtropical fruit trees in their yards, Sawyer says, and they share cuttings for grafting to experiment with new varieties. Recently, the club bought 620 litchi nut trees from Florida and distributed them to the membership, which meets monthly and sometimes takes field trips to members' yards.

At the Fullerton Arboretum, the association operates an exhibition planting open to the public. It includes litchis, mangoes, guavas, cherimoyas, atemoyas, kiwis, bananas, persimmons, longans, sapotes, passion fruit, carambola (starfruit), and more.

Almost any tree can be started with seeds, but most take several years to yield any fruit. For people who want to start growing subtropicals, Messner recommends getting seedlings and then grafting in the strain that will provide the best-tasting fruit. Seedlings are available at most nurseries around the county.

Most of the big growers of the exotics are in north San Diego County, but Orange County has a handful of commercial producers.

Roger and Shirley Meyer of Fountain Valley grow kiwis, jujubees (not the movie-theater candy, but a variety of Chinese dates that look like tiny green apples) and horned melons. The latter look like something Stephen King would dream up for a fruit salad. They are the size and shape of rubber baby footballs and have a yellowish-orange spiny skin and bright green meat inside with lots of edible seeds, much like a cucumber, to which they are related. Horned melons, originally from Southern Africa, retail for about $5 each, so you have to really like them.

Meyer--a pharmaceutical chemist for Herbert Laboratories in Santa Ana--and his wife have been selling horned melons, jujubees and kiwis to Frieda's Finest/Produce Specialties Inc., the Los Angeles entrepreneur who is credited with popularizing many new types of produce, including the spaghetti squash and kiwi.

The Meyers have become experts in the kiwi and kiwi relatives, and Roger gave a keynote speech on the topic at the Southern California Rare Fruit Growers Assn. annual convention last weekend at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

Cathy and Loren Toomey cultivate tamarillos (tree tomatoes) in their El Toro greenhouse and grow them at their farm near Escondido. The Toomeys started growing avocados as a hobby 18 years ago but are looking to be farmers full time after Loren retires in a couple of years from his job as a supervising land surveyor, Cathy Toomey says. The Toomeys also grow feijoas (pineapple guavas), passion fruit and horned melons for sale to Frieda's, and some pepinos in their back yard, but their current focus is the tamarillos, which are "very tough to grow," she says. "They are very frost-tender. In one night, you can lose a whole season."

Ah, the dreaded frost. Forget earthquakes. This is the Big One for growers.

The area's temperate coastal climate is usually quite hospitable to subtropical crops, but infrequent cold snaps can doom even the most promising plants.

"Below 28 degrees a lot of this stuff is killed," says Mary Lu Arpaia, extension subtropical horticulturist for the University of California. "Mangoes are tender below 35 degrees. That is the limiting factor, these periodic cold spells."

One way to battle the swings in temperature is to modify the environment, Arpaia says. This can be as simple as planting something in a southern exposure or close to a house, where the emanating heat creates a microclimate. Even 1 or 2 degrees can make all the difference. "You can also cover some plants with a sheet," she says, noting that this is fine for a hobbyist but that it presents logistical problems for commercial growers.

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