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Rare Fruits Change the Flavor of Garden : Mild Winters Make Orange County a Good Place for Ripe-Minded Growers With Exotic Tastes


Want to tantalize your taste buds with unusual flavors and impress guests with fruits they've never heard of? Add rare-fruit trees to your landscape.

Thanks to Orange County's mild winters, it's possible to grow a number of exotic fruits that you probably thought could only flourish in other parts of the world such as South America or bought in special produce stores. Growing such fruits as mangoes, papaya, and guava is lot easier than you might think.

"Because rare fruits aren't native to this country, it's really an experience to try them," says Pat Sawyer of Fullerton, chairman of the Orange County Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers and past president of the state organization. "Many of the fruits are unlike any you've every tasted."

Many of the exotic fruits that can be cultivated in Southern California are subtropical. You can grow a variety of bananas, guavas, macadamia nut, some papayas, star fruit, carambola and passion fruit.

"The passion fruit kind of tastes like a pineapple," says Roger Meyer, owner of the rare-fruit nursery, Valley Vista Kiwi in Fountain Valley. "It's yellow or purple, round and hard. You slice it in half and eat the pulp and seeds inside."

Another popular exotic fruit similar to the pineapple is the cherimoya. "This has sweet, very juicy white meat, and unlike the pineapple, it's not acidy at all," he says.

The Vitamin C bush has small cherry-like berries that are extremely high in Vitamin C. A similar plant is the surinam cherry, which looks and tastes like cherries we know, the rose apple, which tastes like roses smell, and the white sapote trees, which tastes like sweet custard.

"The black sapote is also called the chocolate pudding tree," says Meyer. "It's a green fruit that looks like road tar inside but has the taste and consistency of chocolate pudding."

Another unique plant is the miracle fruit. "This is a little red berry that you suck on," says Meyer. "The berry doesn't have much flavor, but if within a half an hour you eat a lime or lemon, you'll find that the miracle fruit has cut your mouth's ability to taste acid. The lime or lemon will taste like the sweetest orange you've every had."

Meyer also grows jujubes, an exotic fruit that has two distinct tastes. "Jujubes taste like a dry sweet apple before they are dried," he says. "When they are left to dry on the tree, they take on the taste and texture of dates."

Many rare-fruit trees are attractive landscape additions. "Trees like the macadamia are evergreens and look very nice on front lawns," says Eunice Messner of Anaheim Hills, a fruit specialist coordinator for the California Rare Fruit Grower's and rare-fruit gardener for more than 10 years.

Exotic-fruit trees often have attractive blooms and fruit. "Many of these trees lend a tropical sense to your landscape," says Sawyer. "The Vitamin C plant's blossoms change colors. At one point they are white and another pink." The surinam cherry's leaves turn a brilliant red when the weather cools.

Some rare trees bare fruit during the winter months here when it's summer in their native habitats. "Rare-fruit trees enable you to have fruit all year round," says Sawyer. "During the colder months when warm weather fruits such as peaches and plums aren't bearing, you can harvest guavas and cherimoyas."

Not all rare fruits bear in winter. "When a fruit grows depends on the tree and variety," says Messner. "The sapote has more than one crop each year; some trees fruit all of the time."

Out of their native habitat, rare fruits are sensitive to extreme climate changes. Growers need to know what temperature extremes particular trees can tolerate. Macadamia nuts can survive 20-degree weather, while sapotes are extremely susceptible to frost.

"Most rare fruits are a bit on the tender side when it comes to weather," says Sawyer. "They cannot tolerate extended periods of extreme hot or cold, which is understandable, because many of their native habitat's never vary more than 10 degrees in temperature. Most rare-fruit trees will suffer when the temperature gets over 100 degrees and under 32 for more than a few hours. This past winter's frost damaged many rare trees."

If the tree is extremely sensitive or the night promises to be very cold, Meyer suggests plugging a 60- or 100-watt light bulb into an extension cord, hanging it from a limb and covering the tree with cotton bedsheets. "Sheets provide your trees with a couple of degrees protection, which is all they may need," Meyer says, adding that the bulb should be kept clear of the sheet and any leaves.

The grower's first line of defense is knowing the climate, Meyer says. "Be aware that there are different climates within Orange County," he says. "The inland flatland areas of Yorba Linda, Anaheim and Trabuco Canyon are the coldest, while it's warmer in areas along the coast and at some selected hillsides in Fullerton and Villa Park."

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