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GROWING EXOTIC : With a Little Effort, Tasty Subtropical Fruits Can Thrive in Orange County Soil

Times Staff Writer

Some of us would be happy just to have an orange tree in our back yards, or a small patch of strawberries.

Not Eunice Messner. Her idea of horticulture is more exotic. Cherimoyas. Guavas. Pummelos. Persimmons. Sapotes. Kiwis. Passion fruit. Bananas. Papayas. In short, anything rare and tasty that can grow on the slope behind her Anaheim Hills home.

Subtropical fruits can thrive almost anywhere in the county, but Messner has the ideal locale because her slope has a southern exposure in a canyon that gets quite hot in the summer. The size of her irrigated kingdom is ample testimony to her 10 years of growing exotic fruits.

“I started out with some eucalyptus but planted one fruit tree and that was it,” Messner says. Now she has about 80 fruit-bearing trees, plus a small collection of vegetables.

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Because the trees have varying seasons, Messner enjoys fresh fruit year round (she no longer cans any of it, preferring to give what she can’t consume to friends).

Her success is by no means unique.

More and more people are growing exotic fruits in Southern California. The bulk of them in Orange County are, like Messner, hobbyists active in the Rare Fruit Growers Assn., which has a county membership of about 115 and a worldwide membership of 2,700, says Pat Sawyer of Fullerton, a past president of the association.

All the members have collections of subtropical fruit trees in their yards, Sawyer says, and they share cuttings for grafting to experiment with new varieties. Recently, the club bought 620 litchi nut trees from Florida and distributed them to the membership, which meets monthly and sometimes takes field trips to members’ yards.

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At the Fullerton Arboretum, the association operates an exhibition planting open to the public. It includes litchis, mangoes, guavas, cherimoyas, atemoyas, kiwis, bananas, persimmons, longans, sapotes, passion fruit, carambola (starfruit), and more.

Almost any tree can be started with seeds, but most take several years to yield any fruit. For people who want to start growing subtropicals, Messner recommends getting seedlings and then grafting in the strain that will provide the best-tasting fruit. Seedlings are available at most nurseries around the county.

Most of the big growers of the exotics are in north San Diego County, but Orange County has a handful of commercial producers.

Roger and Shirley Meyer of Fountain Valley grow kiwis, jujubees (not the movie-theater candy, but a variety of Chinese dates that look like tiny green apples) and horned melons. The latter look like something Stephen King would dream up for a fruit salad. They are the size and shape of rubber baby footballs and have a yellowish-orange spiny skin and bright green meat inside with lots of edible seeds, much like a cucumber, to which they are related. Horned melons, originally from Southern Africa, retail for about $5 each, so you have to really like them.

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Meyer--a pharmaceutical chemist for Herbert Laboratories in Santa Ana--and his wife have been selling horned melons, jujubees and kiwis to Frieda’s Finest/Produce Specialties Inc., the Los Angeles entrepreneur who is credited with popularizing many new types of produce, including the spaghetti squash and kiwi.

The Meyers have become experts in the kiwi and kiwi relatives, and Roger gave a keynote speech on the topic at the Southern California Rare Fruit Growers Assn. annual convention last weekend at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

Cathy and Loren Toomey cultivate tamarillos (tree tomatoes) in their El Toro greenhouse and grow them at their farm near Escondido. The Toomeys started growing avocados as a hobby 18 years ago but are looking to be farmers full time after Loren retires in a couple of years from his job as a supervising land surveyor, Cathy Toomey says. The Toomeys also grow feijoas (pineapple guavas), passion fruit and horned melons for sale to Frieda’s, and some pepinos in their back yard, but their current focus is the tamarillos, which are “very tough to grow,” she says. “They are very frost-tender. In one night, you can lose a whole season.”

Ah, the dreaded frost. Forget earthquakes. This is the Big One for growers.

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The area’s temperate coastal climate is usually quite hospitable to subtropical crops, but infrequent cold snaps can doom even the most promising plants.

“Below 28 degrees a lot of this stuff is killed,” says Mary Lu Arpaia, extension subtropical horticulturist for the University of California. “Mangoes are tender below 35 degrees. That is the limiting factor, these periodic cold spells.”

One way to battle the swings in temperature is to modify the environment, Arpaia says. This can be as simple as planting something in a southern exposure or close to a house, where the emanating heat creates a microclimate. Even 1 or 2 degrees can make all the difference. “You can also cover some plants with a sheet,” she says, noting that this is fine for a hobbyist but that it presents logistical problems for commercial growers.

Some banana growers cover the young bunches with plastic garbage bags and have good results, she said. But it is not the ideal fruit for Southern California. There is only one banana plantation, and it is on the coast a few miles south of Santa Barbara, where the ocean helps keep the frost away.

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The peculiarities of some other fruits also keep them on the rare side.

The cherimoya is regarded by some as the most delicious fruit in the world, with a soft, custard-like meat that tastes like a whipped combination of pineapple, papaya, banana, peach and pear. One taste and you wonder why back yards aren’t full of cherimoya trees. Well, it’s because they require a lot of care. In fact, they are kind of a pain in the neck. The blossoms do not accommodate bees, and the pollen is shed later than most of the pistils in the flower need to receive it. Growers must use a small paintbrush to pollinate the blossoms several times during the summer. By December, the fruit is ready for harvest, and some varieties last until March. Cherimoyas, which are about the size of a softball, are greenish yellow and can be eaten when softened at room temperature. They can get mushy very quickly, so it is best to keep an eye on any you have on the windowsill.

Another interesting dessert fruit is the black sapote (evergreen persimmon). “Inside, it looks like axle grease,” says Eunice Messner, who grows some in her sloped garden. “But mix it with Cool Whip and it tastes like an ersatz chocolate mousse.”

A real comer in the exotic fruit market is the fuyu, a Japanese persimmon. Yellowish-orange on the outside and bright pink on the inside, fuyus don’t need to be soft to be sweet. They sell especially well in the Asian community, says Dick Whitmer, editor of California Grower Magazine, a Fallbrook-based publication that specializes in crops grown in the Southwest and has about 3,000 subscribers in Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties. In northern San Diego County, farmers are “cutting down avocados and growing fuyus,” Whitmer says.

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Fuyus and most of the major subtropical fruits are available in the county at the large supermarket chains or at the smaller specialty markets, such as the Irvine Ranch Farmers Market, Christian Farmers Market or Farmers Market at the Atrium, Fashion Island.

Orange County residents have a far wider choice of tropical fruits than most U.S. residents because of the influx of Asians, who have markets that provide foods from their native countries. Little Saigon in Westminster has several Vietnamese food markets that sell hard-to-get durians, a very pungent fruit, and jackfruit, which has a spiky skin and yellowish meat. Both are from Southeast Asia and are not grown in the county, says Tony Lam, a Garden Grove restaurant owner and executive vice president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce.

Many Vietnamese grow persimmons, cherries, apples, oranges, tangerines, prunes, apricots, bananas, guavas and sugar cane, Lam says. The Vietnamese eat a lot of fruit, especially during such holidays as Tet, or Lunar New Year, which is celebrated in February.

Fruit is also placed on altars as part of prayer ceremonies for ancestors, Lam says.

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Some people seem unaware that much exotic fruit is easily grown here or is available through markets, says John L. Ellis, deputy Orange County agricultural commissioner. “They have relatives pack it up and send it to them when they could easily get it here.”

Fruit mailed from overseas is checked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture before it arrives in the United States, but under a new state law, packages shipped from Hawaii or Puerto Rico can be opened in Orange County if the inspectors think there may be contraband fruit in them.

One of the goals of county agricultural officials is to encourage more home-grown exotic fruits, Ellis says.

“I like to see them produced locally so we don’t have to worry about fruit-fly infestation,” he said, noting that in the past 18 months, six shipments of fruit from tropical zones to Orange County were found to have fruit-fly maggots in them.

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Part of the effort to encourage more farming of subtropicals is the work of researchers who study and cultivate breeds that fare well in the Southland climate.

Out at the University of California South Coast Field Substation on Trabuco Road near the El Toro Marine base, a 200-acre Garden of Eden of exotics is taking shape.

On a recent sunny afternoon, substation superintendent Randy Keim guides a beat-up pickup truck over the dirt roads between groves of avocados and points out the highlights with the exuberance of a man who truly enjoys his job.

The groves of avocados give way to groves of citrus trees, which give way to groves of cherimoyas, macadamias, guavas and figs. Keim notes that no pesticides are used, and the trees look remarkably healthy and fruitful.

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The station has perhaps one of the most complete collections of persimmons in the world, says Keim, pointing to some spindly looking trees with plump, round fruit on them.

“All the citrus is under biological control,” Keim says. “You can do that with perennial trees by keeping everything in balance.” As soon as the balance is upset by the introduction of pesticides, a grower has to keep using them to adjust the ecological system.

One group of trees has fruit with the most exotic appearance but the least amount of edible fruit. These are the citrons, which are cousins to the orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime. Several trees at the station have bright yellow citrons the size of bread loaves. They look tempting, but a swing of the knife shows that the beauty is skin deep: The inside is nearly all white rind, with only a tiny circle of edible fruit.

Even a show stopper such as the Buddha’s hand, a bright orange citron with finger-like protrusions, is worthless to fruit buffs. But the citrons are prized by makers of jams, perfumes, fruitcakes and potpourri, who use the skins and rinds for their flavor and aroma.

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Nearly as large as the citrons but far more tasty are the cousins of the grapefruit: pummelos and Oro Blancos, a hybrid of pummelo that the university has developed and patented. With thinner rinds than grapefruit, the pummelos and Oro Blancos have more meat and are quite sweet. They are marketed as a dessert fruit and are bought by Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and other Asians.

Walking through the citrus grove, Keim spots a ripe Oro Blanco and pulls it off a tree.

“Jeepers, that’s good. Jeepers!” he says, biting into a juicy segment.

Later, he pulls down a fat green fig and emits a “Wow, that’s good!”

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A visitor unfamiliar with figs tears one in half and is surprised to find hundreds of white coils inside.

He remarks that it looks like worms.

“Worms!” says Keim, leaping back to get a look. “Oh, you had me all excited for a minute. I would have taken it in and experimented on it.”

The figs tasted sublime, “worms” and all.

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So what happens to all this good-tasting fruit grown at the station?

It doesn’t go to waste, nor do the 15 full-time staff members and 30 to 40 visiting experimenters use it all. The crops are brought to market, garnering about $100,000 that goes to the University of California. Most of the money comes from the 15 acres of oranges and the rows of experimental strawberries.

“We’re always looking for better color, better flavor, more uniform production,” Keim says, noting that the substation has been a valuable resource to strawberry growers, who produce the county’s biggest edible cash crop. The growers pay the substation to grow new varieties and perform experiments. Researchers from the University of California’s three agricultural campuses (Riverside, Davis and Berkeley) also perform experiments.

All in all, Orange County is a swell place to grow things.

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Keim takes a deep breath and looks around the sun-drenched groves.

He notes that the climate is just about perfect.

“This’d be a nice place to live, if people would ever discover it,” he says with a wry grin.


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