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Can't Get to the Tropics? Grow Your Own

April 17, 1999|ASSOCIATED PRESS

Exotic, tropical fruits are turning up on the grocer's shelves these days: dates, papayas, guavas, and others. Within each of these fruits lies seeds that can become exotic, if not beautiful, indoor plants.

Seeds of tropical fruits usually germinate best if planted as soon as the fruits are eaten. Just wash the seeds, then sow them in potting soil buried to twice their depth. And then wait.

The waiting period can be long if the seed is from a date. But stop for a moment and think about deserts, where dates are native. If a date seed sent up a leafy shoot with the first hint of moisture, desert air would dry the sprout in short order. So when a date seed germinates, first its thick taproot grows straight downward seeking permanent moisture, long before even a small sprout peeks above ground.

Watching date roots grow makes the wait more enjoyable. Put an inch of water in the bottom of a glass jar and slide a tube of rolled up blotting paper into the jar. Then "plant" the date seeds halfway up the jar, pressed between the glass and the paper, where you can watch them grow.

Eventually move your date seedling to a flowerpot with potting soil. Leaves will finally appear, but don't expect anything dramatic. An emerging seedling looks like a green toothpick. In time, the "toothpick" unfurls into a succession of fan-like leaves that match any ordinary houseplant for beauty and tolerance of neglect.

Fruit production from a homegrown date palm is well-nigh impossible. The plant grows slowly and, unless you live in a desert climate, growing conditions are less than ideal. Furthermore, only female plants produce fruit, so you would have to grow enough plants to flowering size to ensure at least one male (for pollination) and one female.

Let's move down the produce aisle to papaya, another grocery fruit fun to grow from seed.

In the tropics, papayas are short-lived trees that often bear their first fruits within 11 months of planting. Depending on the length of your growing season and the size of your flowerpot, you could actually get this one to bear fruit. Be forewarned, though: Only female flowers develop into fruits, and a given papaya plant might have only male flowers, only female flowers, or a combination of male and female flowers.

For more reliable fruiting, plant seeds from a pineapple guava. The fresh seeds germinate and grow readily. And the tree is small, so it will not mind being kept at a 5-foot height in a pot which can be carted indoors for winter.

Pineapple guava makes a pretty houseplant, with leaves which are shiny and dark green on their upper surfaces, and felt-like and silvery on their lower surfaces. The flowers look like red bottle brushes poking above purplish-white petals. You will need at least two plants for cross-pollination, and make sure to taste the edible petals. They are sweet and fleshy, a delectable prelude to the minty pineapple fruit that follows.

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