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GARDENING : Planting Tips Let You Enjoy the Rare Fruits of Your Labor


Do your taste buds yearn for something different? Are home-grown apples and oranges not unusual enough for you? If so, try growing something more exotic--rare fruit.

Thanks to our mild Orange County winters, we can grow a number of fruits native to other parts of the world, such as jujube, mango, sapote, guava, cherimoya and carambola.

"Because rare fruits aren't native to this country, for some people it's an education of the palate to try them," said Pat Sawyer of Fullerton, chairman of the Orange County Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers.

Those familiar with rare fruits know they can be difficult to find in the market. And when they're found, it's often with a hefty price tag. Some rare fruits can cost as much as $8 a pound.

Many of the rare fruits that can be grown in Southern California are subtropical, and they often bear here during our fall and winter months, when it is spring and summer in their native habitats.

"Rare fruit trees enable you to have fruit all year-round," Sawyer said. "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," said Eunice Messner of Anaheim Hills, a member of the Rare Fruit Growers and a rare-fruit gardener for more than 14 years. "The sapote has more than one crop each year; some trees fruit all of the time."

Most rare fruit trees are evergreen. Many are attractive landscape additions that lend a tropical air to the garden; blooms, foliage and fruit can be very colorful.

Some rare fruit tastes like more common fruit, while others can't be compared to standard North American varieties.

One popular exotic fruit is the cherimoya. This is similar in taste to the pineapple but is not acidic.

The black sapote, on the other hand, has no comparison, said Roger Meyer, who runs a rare-fruit nursery from his home in Fountain Valley. He has more than 30 types of rare fruit plants, including a large collection of kiwis and jujubes.

"The black sapote is known as the chocolate pudding tree," he said. "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," Meyer said. "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 lemon or lime will taste like the sweetest orange you've ever had."

Jujube is another unusual fruit that has two distinct tastes. "When picked green it tastes like a dry, sweet apple," Meyer said. "Left to dry on the tree it has the taste and texture of dates."

Rare fruits might sound like they'd be difficult to grow, but many are surprisingly easy. Even more temperamental varieties can be successfully grown if you keep a few tips in mind:

* Educate yourself about the tree you are planting. Because their native habitats don't fluctuate in temperature much, some rare fruit trees are sensitive to climate changes.

Find out what temperature extremes your tree can tolerate. Most rare fruits will suffer when the temperature gets over 100 degrees or under 32 degrees for more than a few hours.

* Know the microclimate in your yard. Because of factors such as positioning of housing and existing vegetation, your yard may be five degrees cooler or warmer than your neighbor's.

The inland, flatland areas of Yorba Linda, Anaheim and Trabuco Canyon are generally the coldest parts of Orange County, while it's warmer in areas along the coast and at some selected hillsides in Fullerton and Villa Park. Because heat rises, many hillsides are warmer than flat areas.

* Plant rare fruit trees on the south side of your house whenever possible, because it is the sunniest in winter. Never plant on the north side because it gets very little winter sunlight. Plant as close to the house as possible, as reflected heat will warm the tree. Don't plant a tree that has large, invasive roots too close to your house, however.

* To protect fruit trees from overnight frost, throw a cotton bedsheet over the plant; make sure to remove the sheet first thing in the morning. If the plants are small, you can place a cardboard carton over them.

* Water your rare fruit trees regularly, because they are native to climates that get a lot of rainfall and aren't very forgiving when they experience drought. This is especially important for fruit trees in containers, because they have no water reservoir to draw from. Don't overwater, though.

* Mulch rare fruit trees to keep the soil evenly moist and regularly fertilize with an all-purpose fertilizer.

* Buy growing trees. Although rare fruit trees are generally started by grafting seedlings onto an existing root stock, it's best for the new rare-fruit grower to purchase a tree.

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