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JAUNTS : Tropical Treat : At La Conchita, you can stroll in the shade of lofty trees and taste one of the 58 exotic varieties of bananas grown here.

August 18, 1994|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you think a banana is, well, just a banana, a gentle eating adventure, take a drive up to La Conchita and peel yourself a Blue Java, a Brazilian or a delicately diminutive Ladyfinger.

Here, on the edge of this tiny beach community, sits the Seaside Banana Garden, the first commercial banana plantation in the continental United States. But you'll find few of the bananas typically found in grocery stores. Some 58 exotic kinds thrive here on a 16-acre niche between the ocean and 300-foot-high bluffs.

Although the freeway pounds nearby, you can take a quarter-mile walk through the grounds and feel as if you are in the tropics. Lofty banana trees with their huge leaves and green banana clusters surround you. Along the way, you pass an old beat-up rickshaw that lends a tropical feel.

In a grass hut, workers sell varieties of ripe and nearly ripe bananas to a stream of people who pack the place on the weekends. The bananas go for $1.50 a pound and, if you want to sample several kinds, they'll label them so you know what you've got.

"People like the Brazilian and the Ladyfinger," said owner Doug Richardson, 45. "Everyone asks about the Ice Cream banana (also known as the Blue Java), but we rarely have any that are ripe."

They all look and taste different, some better than others. The Ice Cream banana has a foamy, creamy texture like ice cream, a pineapple-cherimoya taste, and skin that is a gray-blue color.

The Brazilian tastes more like store-bought bananas, generally known as Cavendish. The Ladyfinger, a favorite dessert in India, has an orange pulp with a strawberry-citrus flavor. Most varieties are short and stubby, but the Cardaba is big and fat, with a dense mushy texture on the outside and a firm middle.

"The Cardaba is very filling," Richardson said. "It's got a lot of food value."

It's not just the fruit that some people are interested in. Sherrie Welch and Karen McConnell drove all the way from Arizona with their small children to visit the plantation, but it was banana leaves they were after. They use them to wrap tamales, fish and other dishes they cook.

Visitors can also buy banana plants--$15 to $20 for the bare root, or $25 to $35 for a five-gallon container. They're not that tricky to grow, according to Richardson, and they are self-pollinating, so you can get by with one. But they'll take some patience. It takes 18 to 24 months before any fruit is ripe.

Banana trees aren't supposed to thrive and bear fruit in California. At least that's what Richardson was told back in 1980 when he bought a plant or two in San Diego. He was in the landscaping business in La Conchita at the time and used edible fruit among his plantings.

"I put them in my yard and they took off," he recalled. For the next four years, he experimented with other banana varieties. He kept detailed temperature records, ever wary of frost.

But his charts showed that La Conchita has a "unique microclimate" that seldom gets frost. Winter nighttime temperatures are eight to 10 degrees warmer than in Ventura and Santa Barbara, partly because of the bluffs, the south-facing location and the warm ocean breezes, he said.

He's not immune from the cold, though. A killer frost in 1990 ruined 30% of his crop. But it also gave him a chance to learn which banana varieties would make it and which wouldn't.

Richardson, whose horticultural skills are self-taught, can now thumb his nose at earlier skeptics. "We've sold thousands of banana plants," he said, "and people come in and say they've had great success." The leaves might not survive a frost, but the plant likely will rebound.

He harvests bananas year-round, doing much of the cutting and packing himself. An acre yields 10 tons of organically grown fruit, which is sold at the stand or packed for distribution to specialty markets, restaurants and mail order requests. Production was fairly heavy last year, lighter this year.

Lately, he's added many other exotic plants and trees for sale: guava, fig, melon, cherry, raspberry, blackberry, coffee, sugar cane and palm. Inside the hut, there are ripe oranges, pineapple, coconut, papaya and eggplant for sale.

For those who can't wait until they return home to sample some bananas, they can peel a few at a big picnic table by the entrance.

If you want to linger awhile in La Conchita before heading south, the beach is a good spot for a picnic, but you'll have to cross the freeway and scramble down the rocks.

In fact, the highway seems to dominate this little town of several hundred surfers, seniors and young families. The locals avoid the dangerous dash across the busy road by using storm drains at each end of town.

The banana plantation and the gas station-market are the only businesses in La Conchita, and a stroll through town reveals a mix of homes--mobile homes, bungalows and newer, roomier houses with second-story views.

On the way home, you can stop for a meal at the Cliff House in Sea Cliff, just south of La Conchita. And for dessert, you might try their famous banana flambe.

Details

* WHAT: Seaside Banana Garden.

* WHERE: La Conchita (exit off Highway 101 in La Conchita, then follow Surfside Street adjacent to the highway north to the Seaside Banana Garden. Look for the yellow van with bananas painted on it.)

* WHEN: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

* CALL: 643-4061.

* ETC.: Getting into La Conchita from the south is easy, but returning to Ventura and points south requires you to make a left turn across Highway 101.

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