Does it grow here?
We get questions
Originally published in the Davis Enterprise June 23, 2005
Gardeners always want to grow the plants that are just out
of range. I've sent seedling redwoods to Italy, Hungary, and Israel, loaded a
'Meyer' lemon tree into the back of a pickup truck for the long drive to Casper,
Wyoming, and had online conversations about fruit trees with people all over
Fruit plants, in particular, seem to be a common source of inquiries. It may be fruit that they remember from childhood, from a special vacation, or that has symbolic meaning. Sometimes the quest is quixotic. But as long as you know what a particular plant needs, perhaps look at where it's from to get some idea of what you'll have to provide, it may be possible to grow in your yard.
Here are a few of our recent inquiries.
In the case of tropical or subtropical fruits, winter protection is usually key. Look for warm micro-climates -- a wall which reflects the winter sun can provide a few degrees of protection. Festoon the plant with Christmas lights in the winter. There may also be special fertilizer or pollination issues. The California Rare Fruit Growers is an amateur fruit-growing organization which can be an excellent resource.
"My son is doing missionary work in Brazil and has gotten fascinated with the Passion fruit that grows there. He wants to know if he can grow it here when he gets back."
Yes, indeed he can. There are dozens of species of Passiflora, and a couple of breeders have been introducing ornamental and edible hybrids that are hardy enough to survive our winters. Worth growing for the spectacular flowers, and not nearly as rampant here as in warm-winter regions, Passion flowers are useful vines for quick screening and summer color.
'Black Knight', 'Frederick', and 'Nancy Garrison' produce high quality fruit on somewhat tender plants; expect severe winter damage each year, and they'd do best on a wall facing south or east for winter warmth. P. mollissima produces large fruit and has very showy pink flowers, but is described by Suncrest Wholesale Nurseries as 'fearsomely vigorous'. P. vitifolia (aka P. coccinea) has bright red flowers, produces fruit only if hand pollinated.
"I see bananas in peoples' yards. Will they really produce bananas here?"
Many banana plants will grow here as ornamentals, and some of them will produce fruit. The Chiquita-style bananas that you buy at the store are unusual sterile, polyploid hybrids in the genus Musa. Those plants will grow here, producing big tropical leaves and reaching heights of 10' + before freezing back each winter. It's that freezing back part that limits fruit production--bananas are usually produced on shoots in the second year.
But the banana fruit is one of the most important sources of starch in much of the world, with species growing to 6000' in the Himalayas, and a Chinese species hardy to 20 below zero. Here in the Sacramento Valley we can grow types that will produce fruit which is tasty fresh or, in some cases, cooked (roasted or sauteed to reduce astringency and release more of the sugar).
Think of bananas as very ornamental subtropical plants, with the possibility of fruit as an interesting bonus. For more information about bananas than you ever thought possible to know, visit the web site of Monterey Bay Nursery: http://montereybaynsy.com.
As a displaced Southern Californian myself, I remember avocadoes being annoyingly abundant from the tree in the back yard. The avocado you buy in the store is Hass, a Guatemalan type hardy only in Southern California. If you sprouted an avocado seed and grew it as a houseplant, this is what you have--so it's too tender to survive a normal winter outdoors here.
Mexican avocadoes are hardy enough to grow here, and some varieties have fruit of nearly as high quality as the Hass. The plants are ornamental, like to have organic material added to the soil at the time of planting, and require a regular fertilizing schedule (Citrus fertilizer every month from March through October). They require frost protection when young and during serious freezing weather.
But fruit production is very hit or miss due to a complicated pollination issue. The male and female flowers are both present on the tree, but they open at different times of day. If it's a warm spring, they meet for lunch and make fruit. If it's a cool spring, they don't.
"My mother is from the Philippines and wants to grow guavas. Not the things people here call guavas--real guavas!"
Pineapple guava, Feijoa sellowiana, is a common ornamental plant in this area that produces very tasty fruit; in fact, even the flowers are edible. Varieties are available with reliably large, high-quality fruit, which you cut in half and scoop out the tangy flesh.
But real guavas are in the genus Psidium. The tropical species is frost tender. But two varieties of P. cattleianum, the Strawberry and Lemon guavas, are just barely hardy enough to grow in sheltered parts of your yard. They are small trees with glossy leaves and beautiful bark reminiscent of Crape myrtle. Difficult to find in Northern California, though.
Folks returning from the Mediterranean or Europe often ask about the raspberry-like, dark red orange juice they were served there. Blood orange plants are as hardy as navel oranges and just as easy to grow here, either as a large shrub or small tree. Plant in a sunny location, fertilize regularly, water deeply and fairly infrequently, and protect the young trees from frost.
Hardy fruit-producing plants may have problems with our Valley heat or heavy soil. In the case of the former, look for a location with dappled shade from a high tree. Many berry-producing plants are from woodland environments, so adding lots of organic matter to break up our clay loams soils will help to make them feel at home. If the plant is truly from high elevation or latitude, we may not be able to provide the 'chilling hours' needed for proper flower development -- short of mulching with ice cubes in the winter.
raises des bois, wild strawberries -- Fragaria vesca. Tiny, dryish fruit is packed with intense flavor. I have grown these in an oak barrel in the shade of my Sycamore tree for over a decade now. The foliage is attractive, and we can pick a sampling of fruit any time during spring and summer. These woodland plants like plenty of moisture and afternoon shade, but are otherwise carefree. Plant them in the shade of a high tree, on the north or east sides of the house, or mix them with other shade-lovers in a container.
"My girlfriend is from Norway, and I wanted to get her a lingonberry plant to remind her of home."
Vaccinium vitis-idaea minus. The genus Vaccinium includes some of North America's trademark fruits: cranberries from the northeast, huckleberries and red huckleberries from the Pacific, But this is an arctic species, prefers heavily organic and somewhat acidic soils, and definitely would need shade here. A challenge, to be sure -- or, in his case, a labor of love?
Prunus virginiana. The customer who asked about these was actually surprised that I even knew what they were. My mother grew up with these suckering shrubby trees in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and remembers (fondly, I think) making jam from the berries during WWII.
The fruit is very astringent, requires a LOT of sugar to become palatable. It's probably comparable to making jam from the fruit of your ornamental red-leaf plum tree. That species is strictly for high elevations, requiring a lot of winter chilling to flower properly. There is a Western chokecherry, P. v. demissa, which could be grown here. I'd expect the same diseases that plague other related stone fruits in this area.
Currants and gooseberries
Ribes species and hybrids (the Zante currants used in cooking are actually just little raisins). We have native species of Ribes which are ornamental, easy to grow, and produce fruit that is enjoyed by songbirds.
But it's usually European customers who are asking about these tart-sweet fruits they remember, as the classic gooseberry of cookery and desserts is native to the Caucasus (R. grossularia). These plants do NOT like hot summer regions, and are afflicted by various diseases and pests. I've tried currant plants and watched the foliage scorch even in the shade, get hopelessly infested with spider mites, and generally fail to thrive. Perhaps in the shade of a grove of redwoods, with added mist on hot days, you'd get a sampling of fruit.
But intrepid gardeners consider failure to be a challenge, and breeders often work to introduce greater hardiness or tolerance into fruit with limited range. Find the right niche in your yard, provide the plant with soil amendments or conditions similar to the native range if possible, and you may be successful.
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
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