Weekly Gardening Tips: Tropical fruit

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By Bob Beyfuss

For Capital Region Independent Media

Editor’s Note: We are saddened to announce the death of our friend and columnist, Bob Beyfuss. Bob passed away Jan. 12 while doing something he loved — playing softball with his friends in Florida. He will be missed. This is his final column.

One of the perks to being a snowbird, here on the Gulf Coast of Florida, is the opportunity to taste some interesting, locally grown tropical fruit.

I have a friend nearby, Willie, who formerly operated a commercial grove right here in the city of Bradenton, on his 5-acre property. He grew all sorts of oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes, as well as some more unusual fruit.

Oranges are commercially grown in “groves,” while apples are commercially grown in “orchards.” The difference being them mostly due to semantic reasons. Commercially grown American ginseng is grown in “gardens” regardless of the acreage. 

Willie is older than me and mostly retired now, partly due to the pests that have ravaged his citrus crops. Diseases such as “Greening” have devastated most of his citrus trees as well as much of the citrus industry in Florida.

A teammate on my softball team, a retired executive from Tropicana, told me that the plant he worked at processed about 285 million pounds of Florida oranges 15 years ago. Now, he estimates that the plant only processes about 22 million pounds of Florida oranges. This is partly due to development and hurricane damage, but also due to loss of acreage and to diseases. The oranges they now process come mostly from Brazil and Mexico. 

Willie still grows some lemons and limes and a very few prized orange varieties, but he will not use the pesticides he needs to prevent “Greening.” Fortunately, for me, he also grows some other fruit that I had never tasted.

About six years ago, I happened to be in Florida in July and I got to taste fresh Lychee fruit. Those were perhaps the tastiest fresh fruit I have ever eaten. I have eaten them frozen, or processed, since then, but the flavor is not close to fresh. They have an unusual, grape-like, very sweet pulp, which reminded me a bit of strawberries crossed with watermelon.  

A few days ago, I ate a ripe, black sapote fruit. This fruit is closely related to persimmon and looks a bit like a large persimmon. It is about the size of a small orange with a squat, pumpkin shape. The very thin skin is pale green when not ripe, darker green with brown to black speckles, when fully ripe.

The development of the fruit process takes months, even here in this long growing season region. Ripe, the fruit is so soft and mushy that it must be picked unripe and allowed to ripen in a protected spot for more than two weeks. During this period, the flesh inside changes in color from white to dark brown, to almost black.

I doubt if you will ever see this fruit at your local supermarket. Visually, this is not an appetizing looking snack fruit, but despite the brown/black, mushy textured, somewhat stringy flesh, with several almond-sized inedible seeds in the center, it tastes remarkably like chocolate custard.  

I happen to like chocolate custard very much, but the absence of any dairy product in this “custard” was a surprise to my palate. I also read that it pairs well with citrus fruit, so I mixed some of the flesh with mandarin orange slices and they did combine remarkably well.

Sadly, Willie has only one more fruit on his tree that he will save for an anticipated visitor from the north, in March. That’s a long time to have to wait for a single fruit, but these fruits are special.

Another tropical fruit that is more commonly grown commercially is the star fruit, or carambola. This medium-size tree, native to southeast Asia, grows well at Willie’s grove and it often has hundreds of fruit in various stages of ripeness on it at the same time. It is as prolific for him as the sapote is stingy!

The fruit are about the size of an orange, but size varies considerably, depending on how well or fast they grow. They are named “star fruit” because when sliced horizontally, the slices form perfect, five-pointed stars. This makes them very attractive in fruit salads. The fruit color changes from green to yellow as they ripen. Green or pale yellow fruit are somewhat astringent and sour, but as they turn deeper yellow and almost orange they become much sweeter. The entire fruit is edible fresh, even its very waxy skin, but most people cut off the edges of the star points before slicing.

Tree-ripened star fruit are a real treat to me, tasting sweet and sour, with a citrusy aftertaste. They are commonly sold at fruit and vegetable markets here in Florida and I would not be surprised if they are also available at some specialty markets in the Northeast.  

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