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Some Tropical Fruit Trees Do Well in Southland : Exotics: Whether their home is Brazil or China, some of these imports make themselves right at home here in warm areas.

August 05, 1990|BILL SIDNAM | Sidnam has written garden columns and features for The Times since 1975.

Rare and exotic fruit trees are becoming a lot less rare in Southland yards these days thanks to the efforts of Bill Nelson and others who are making the public aware of the excitement of growing them.

Nelson--through his Pacific Tree Farms--has long been a pioneer marketer of exotic tropical and subtropical fruit trees.

We visited Nelson recently to discover what's going on in the world of exotic fruit trees. Here are some of his observations.

The jaboticaba tree comes to Southern California from Brazil where it ranks among that country's favorite fruit trees. Nelson says the small evergreen trees are better suited than many rare fruit trees to a wide range of Southland growing zones.

They will tolerate temperatures down to 24 degrees Fahrenheit and cam be grown either in full or partial sun. Immediate coastal and desert areas, however, are not favorable growing regions.

The jaboticaba tree has an amazing fruiting habit. The dark-purple, grape-like fruit are attached directly to the main trunk and side branches of the tree--almost as if they were glued on.

The fruit resembles large concord grapes but has a different flavor. The fruit is delicious. It has an unusual sweet, refreshing tropical flavor. The grape-like flesh is juicy and surrounded by a tough skin, which is usually discarded. The fruit contains one to four seeds.

If the fruit of the jaboticaba is so good, why isn't it grown commercially? Because, Nelson says, it takes from eight to 10 years for a tree to produce fruit. The patient gardener, however, will be rewarded with three crops of fruit a year. It takes this remarkable tree only six weeks from blossom set until harvest time. Nelson says that in most of Southern California, the harvests occur in June, August and October.

Nelson says the culture for the jaboticaba is similar to that of a citrus tree. It won't tolerate drought and needs regular irrigation and feeding with a citrus food.

According to Nelson, the cherimoya is still the most prized of the exotic fruit grown in Southern California--or most anywhere else, for that matter. The fruit is shaped like a giant strawberry, with a light-green skin that looks as if it is covered with overlapping armor plates.

The exotic flavor is hard to describe, but its custard-like flesh tastes somewhat like a blend of banana, pineapple, papaya and peach.

The cherimoya tree can be grown only in the milder areas of Southern California, where it makes a handsome addition to landscapes, and its flowers lend a tropical fragrance to surrounding areas.

A mature tree will tolerate temperatures down to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. However, young trees need frost protection. The cherimoya tree is not a good bet for the hot zones of the Southland, but thrives in our coastal valleys.

The tree begins to bear fruit about three years after planting, however, it must have some help in the form of hand pollination. Beginning in June, pollen should be removed from the male portion of the flowers, which are fully open in the afternoon. Using a small paint brush, remove the pollen and store it in the refrigerator. Then in the morning, brush the pollen onto the cone-like pistil of the partially open female part of the flowers.

Although you can grow the cherimoya tree from seed, the seedling is seldom a reliable producer of fruit. You should purchase a grafted tree. Reliable varieties include Chaffee, Libby, Thomson Spain, Pierce, Booth and Bays.

Nelson says a sunny planting site is a must for a cherimoya tree. The soil should be fast-draining. In the absence of rain, it should be watered deeply once a week and fed with a citrus-avocado food in the spring and early fall.

If you're looking for a beautiful addition to your landscape that also bears tasty fruit, Nelson recommends the litche. It is a magnificent tree with a sweet-tart succulent fruit that is encased in brilliant red shells. The fruit grows in spectacular clusters that contrast with the tree's evergreen foliage. The tree attains a height of 20 to 25 feet.

The litchi, indigenous to South China, has been around for more than 2,000 years. Introduced to Southern California after the turn of this century, it will grow in mild-climate areas where the temperature does not drop below 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Nelson says the litchi has cultural requirements similar to the cherimoya.

The litchi blooms in early spring, and its fruit ripens from August through October, though the tree tends to bear fruit every other year. The fruit is delicious when eaten right from the tree. You simply crack open the brittle shell and enjoy the fruit, which has a pleasing aftertaste and a texture not unlike that of a peeled grape. The flesh surrounds a brown seed.

Suitable litchi varieties for Southern California include Brewster (the best variety, Nelson says), Groff, Sweetcliff, Bengat, Mauritius and Kwai Mi.

Nelson reports that coffee trees are becoming popular at his nursery solely because of their breathtaking beauty.

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