Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Message Received

It's a little more than a year since the passing of Pete Ray, one of many who made the MRFC the great club it is today. Our paths only crossed for a couple of years near the end of his life, but I learned a lot from him. He took me on a personal tour of his fabulous collection of fruit trees, and last year he gave me several trees and shrubs that I hold special.

Pete also encouraged me to take over his blog, despite my status as a fruit tree beginner. Some days I still feel like one, but the challenge of coming up with a weekly something that somebody out there might find worth reading has been a great motivator for me to learn and keep learning.

Christmas is a time when most of us think back to earlier days, and remember the people we knew along the way who gave us something we still carry inside. Even though I won't ever forget these folks, I often receive little reminders from them, and last week Pete sent me this one on a hibiscus plant that came from his collection. There are many beautiful flowers, but I don't think there are any more elegant than a hibiscus at that perfect moment.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

From Here To There

For various reasons, I've transplanted quite a few trees and shrubs this year. I began with misgivings, but to my relief it has generally worked out very successfully.

Back in February, 2014 I planted a Tithonia rotundifolia, the Mexican Sunflower, in my east mango grove. It's a nice ornamental and also a good nutrient recycler, a vigorous grower of long, thin branches of soft wood perfect for the mini-chipper. But I hadn't realized just how vigorous a grower it was, and before long it was creating a shading and crowding problem. So in February of this year, it went to a new home under a big live oak. The moved cost it a lot of roots, but it's a tough plant and after a droopy week, it took off again. It's in the middle of this photo, flanked by a young floss silk tree on the right and a pair of seagrapes on the left, and with the oak behind it.

This “Raggedy Ann” copperleaf had been losing badly in competition for light and water with a nearby oak tree. It had partially defoliated and looked destined for the chipper. At the end of June, I tried it in a terraced spot near the driveway. Six months later it's happy as can be, showing off its unique foliage every time we pass by.

Here are a couple of Grewia asiatica bushes, often called Sherbertberry or Phalsa. Somewhere in the world people are enjoying sherbertberries, I'm sure, but mine have all tasted terrible. So last June the lanky plants lost their sunny irrigated spots to two grafted dark-fruit Surinam cherries. The spread-out root systems of the Grewias were mauled when I transplanted them to a morning-sun location along the east fence. Both bushes almost completely defoliated, but after pruning back they quickly leafed out again. In this somewhat dry, shady spot, they have grown slowly but looked healthy, even producing a few more of their unpalatable fruit.

These are the Surinam cherries that took over the spots vacated by the Grewias. So far they've produced a few tasty fruit that I've taken off quickly to avoid attracting the climbing raccoons who live in the adjoining woods. And the smaller one is triply staked for extra protection.

This wampi seedling was occupying a sunny, irrigated spot. It may be a while before it produces, and the wampi fruits I've eaten were very resistible, so in November it went over to the east side to live under some oak canopy. It's taken the move in stride, and should green up with some nitrogen feeding in the spring.

Here is the Angie mango that took over the wampi spot. It's the only mango variety I have two of, so I used this one in this space next to the woods. That way, if the critters grab a lot of its fruit I'll still have its twin in a safer location. Or maybe they will just develop a real craving for Angies...

This winter-dormant frangipani has a nice shape and pretty dark pink flowers, but certainly didn't need the irrigated space where I naively planted it as a broomstick more than three years ago. Now it's terraced near the bottom of the septic drain field hill. Perhaps a little risky to the field, but I figure it will send most of its roots downhill, and provide a nice drought-tolerant ornamental in an otherwise useless spot. Its former location is ready for the Jin Huang mango on my porch to be planted there next spring.

These two little sapodillas, an Alano and a Molix, were an unsuccessful experiment to see whether they could do well near some oak trees on the east side. Competing for sun and water, and occasionally molested by raccoons, they were struggling. The raccoons even killed a larger Oxkutzcab sapodilla nearby, so it was high time to clear out. Seen here a week or so after transplanting to prime locations, they already looked happier. To their right is a Campeche variety sapodilla that produced its first fruit just this year, and center rear is a Sweetheart lychee that really wants some cool weather to help it fruit next June.

That's not all, there's more. We'll see it in a future post.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Heat Is On

Every fruit tree grower, and most everybody else, knows that it's been unseasonably warm in Florida. Throughout our state, in fact, it was the warmest November ever recorded, and with today's ten-day predicted highs and lows both far above average, there is no letup on the horizon.

The good news is that we're getting extra growth from young trees, like this vigorous December flush on my young No Mai Tsze lychee tree. The bad news is that annual cycles are being disrupted. My fig trees, which should be dropping their leaves for the winter, are merrily budding. Friends report blueberry plants heavy with fruit. You can probably supply your own examples.

For a dooryard hobbyist like me, a bad blueberry or lychee crop next year is not a big concern--- though I feel for commercial growers out there who may be facing major losses. My main worry is that we're set up for the tropical fruit tree grower's nightmare--- trees in active growing mode hit by a sudden freeze. I've meditated to Ma'am Gaia more than once about this matter, though I've had to admit that conditions bad for my kind may be perfect for other species, and that she might not have reason to favor these upright-walking social primates who have been doing so much damage lately.

Key to the upcoming winter is an El Niño that is at least the second-strongest on record. This band of unusually warm water in the Pacific equatorial region affects the jet stream and other determiners of our winter season. A lot has changed (notably polar temperatures) since the previous largest El Niño twenty years ago, complicating the already-difficult task of predicting its effects. The best guess from NOAA is a wetter-than-usual winter, and a fair chance of a cooler one, though perhaps counterintuitively, “strong El Niño’s often mitigate the chances for freezing temperatures.” In this case, it's wise to take “often” to mean “not always”.

So even though it still feels almost summery out there, it's high time to make sure all your favorite freeze-protection methods are in place and ready to go on short notice. Just in case the warmer-than-usual temperatures don't last for the next three months.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Finally, Real Progress on Greening?

I'm still getting some good oranges off the mature trees left on our property by a previous owner. But last spring I had to put two Minneolas and a never-did-produce Valencia out of their misery, and as limbs die back, the remaining relics get smaller every year. They form far more fruit than they can possibly ripen in their weakened state. Most fall early or succumb to one assault or another, but a few make it through. And remind me that a good orange is among the finest of fruits.

The biggest, baddest of citrus diseases is, of course, the relentless HLB or citrus greening disease that continues to devastate the Florida industry. For years the news on greening has been dire, but Texas A&M researcher Erik Mirkov has developed greening-resistant trees by transferring spinach genes that produce antimicrobial proteins.

Now, scientists Jude Grosser and Manjul Dutt at Florida's Citrus Research and Education Center have used a gene from the mustard family to produce greening-resistant Hamlin and Valencia orange trees. Their September article in the prominent open-access scientific journal PLOS ONE details the work.

Test results of their trees appear similar to those reported by Mirkov. In field trials in groves heavily infested with greening, some lines tested positive for greening at some points in the trials, but greening-free later. Three lines tested free for the entire 36 months. Laboratory trees exposed to continuous attack by infected citrus psyllids exhibited similar resistance.

The work would have to be repeated for other varieties and citrus species, but this could be avoided if the method can be adapted to produce rootstocks that impart greening resistance even to non-genetically-modified scions. In addition, the authors speculate, this “could potentially be more acceptable to consumers than transgenic citrus scions.”

For both the Texas and Florida programs, considerable further development and testing are required, and it will still be years before these trees are available to the public.

Is victory at hand? Not yet. The trick now is to “stack” the mustard gene with another gene that works by a completely different mechanism. For such a doubly protected tree, it would be far more difficult for HLB to adapt to overcome the defenses. Then we win. At least until the next scourge spawned by the vast monocultures of industrial agriculture.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Super Hass

If you've learned a bit about growing avocados in Florida, you'll know that the Hass variety that dominates the grocery store bins doesn't work well here. And though we have many excellent varieties adapted to our conditions, there are some diehard Hass lovers. In fact, I am married to one (though we'll see how her tastes evolve if my Jose Antonio and Catalina trees produce). For their exacting palates, there may now be a Florida solution.

At the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota's mini-tree sale last October, I had a chance to ask Fruitscapes owner Steve Cucura about the Super Hass avocado variety that he now has for sale. It originated as a seedling of a Hass avocado tree that belongs to a dooryard grower in Louisiana. Steve and Immokalee wholesaler Billy Hopkins acquired it and have developed it for Florida growers.

The owner was calling it Ooh-La-La, the kind of name that's cute but would wear thin after a while. Steve took to calling it the Super Hass, and I think that will stick.

Steve has found that the tree is vigorous in Florida's humid climate. It certainly looked that way from the 7-gallon specimens he brought to the sale--- grafted last year and already taller than I am. More importantly, it is very productive.

Super Hass fruits in September and October. The only weakness Steve has found is that the fruits sometimes ripen unevenly. He said this seems to diminish as the fruiting season goes on, and gave me a couple of freshly picked fruit to sample. The first was opened when it felt just a bit soft, like a ripe Hass, but turned out to be underripe. The second did ripen unevenly, but the ripe part tasted exactly like a Hass.

Waiting a while longer to open them likely would have produced better ripened fruit. And Noris Ledesma says that fruit trees have to learn how to make good fruit, so maybe the Super Hass trees will outgrow the problem. I expect a prime high-ground planting site to open up next spring when I put some declining citrus trees out of their misery, and I'm intrigued enough to give Super Hass a try.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

How Many Trees Are There?

How many trees are there in the world? Scientists are making progress in the effort to answer this question.

An article in the Washington Post highlights a study recently published in Nature. A team of 38 scientists reported their research on not just the number of trees, but the distribution and, most importantly, how this count has been changing in recent years.

The investigation combined satellite observation data with more than 400,000 ground-based observations of tree density. It turns out that nearly half the planet's trees are in tropical regions, with most of the rest about equally divided between temperate zone and boreal (northern) forests. For those who may be wondering, the scientists' definition of “tree” is a woody plant with trunk diameter at chest height of at least 100 cm, or about 4 inches.

The bottom line looks like good news. The study found that there are more than three trillion trees, which works out to 422 trees per person on the planet. This is more than seven times the previous estimate of 400 billion.

How do different nations stack up as far as trees per person? Canada, with its extensive boreal and tundra forests and relatively low population density, has an impressive 8,953 per person, and for similar reasons Russia racks up 4,461. This outdoes Brazil, which with its rapidly disappearing Amazon rain forest is down to 1,494 per person. At 716, the U. S. is comfortably above the world average. China has only 102 per person, and crowded India only 28. My Indian friends would counter that measured by resource consumption, the average American counts as dozens of average Indians. Could be they have a point there.

Three trillion is a lot of trees, but the scientists believe the tree count has fallen 46% since the beginning of human civilization. And the current annual net loss from human activity, wildfires, and pest outbreaks is around 10 billion. A sobering flip side to the increased count is that restoring forests to historic levels would require many more trees than previously thought.

Yet another reason to plant more fruit trees.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Males Not Needed. Females Either.

Until this fall I haven't focused much on my papaya plants. The half dozen I planted in 2013 promptly departed for compost heaven in the standing water of that very wet summer. I tried again and now have a random assortment of them growing, mostly in not enough sunlight. They are making fruit, but are too small to carry it to maturity.

Now I'm working on a major upgrade to my papaya horticulture. Some of the details will appear upcoming posts, but today let's just review one of the oddities of this unusual fruiting plant--- the fact that papayas (basically) have three genders: male, female, and hermaphrodite (or, in Tropical Fruit Forum-ese, hermies).

Males are easily identified by their flowers, which as seen here are on relatively long peduncles (flower stems), as opposed to the other two genders whose short peduncles keep the flowers--- and later the fruit--- close to the main trunk.

Males go directly to the compost heap.

Females are a little trickier to identify. Their flowers have ovaries but not anthers. If you have one producing fruit that you like, it may be worth keeping, but generally speaking the females belong on the compost heap as well.

The keepers are the hermaphroditic plants. The flowers are “perfect”, meaning they have both ovaries and anthers. Hermies are self-pollinating, and can pollinate females as well as other hermies. The fruit of the females tends to be rounder and have a larger seed cavity. Some sources say the hermie's fruit is tastier. Even if not, the assured pollination, smaller fruit cavity and a shape conducive to tighter packing for shipping make hermies the nearly universal choice for commercial growers.

There are rules for the proportions of genders to be expected in seeds from the various pollination combinations of male-female, hermie-female, and hermie-hermie, but they won't be on the exam. More important for the home grower is being aware of various phenomena involving papaya gender and fruiting. Males can produce small, useless fruit. Females sometimes produce fruit without pollination--- I've had one, which had no seeds and was bland-tasting. Some papayas have both male and female flowers. Some hermies produce some male flowers. Sometimes--- especially after a traumatic event--- papaya plants will change genders.

In short, thin out the male and female plants, and be prepared for surprises.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

I Killed It

I killed a tree today, a fruit tree. Most of us have killed some--- there was the one that I watered too much, and the one I didn't water enough, and the one that I never figured out which. Ha, ha.

But this was a real killing. A healthy tree that I've eaten plenty of fruit from, that did what it was supposed to do. An act considered, fully evaluated, planned, and efficiently carried out.

There's only so much space, and so much sunlight, and I need that prime irrigated spot for something I really, really want to grow there. In this situation, I often transplant the current resident to another location, and generally that's worked out well. But for various reasons it wasn't worth it this time.

People run the gamut when it comes to killing plants. I've heard of some who have difficulty just thinning vegetable starts, and certainly there are plenty who simply don't see plants as an emotional matter--- if there's a better alternative, it's simple logic to take it.

As a vegetarian, I'm occasionally asked whether I think plants can feel pain. I am certain they do not. Animals, being mobile, need pain to make good decisions of where to go--- it tells you which things are harmful, so you can choose to avoid them. Plants, though exquisitely reactive to their environments, make no such decisions. Since the structure needed to experience suffering requires an investment of matter and energy, a pain-feeling plant will be outcompeted by one that puts those resources to better use. Whether you subscribe to Darwin's concepts or not, you know that useless structure is not to be found.

So pain's not an issue. Every day I rip out unwanted plants and recycle their nutrients as compost, never giving the matter a second thought. But a fruit tree that I put there myself, and has done what I asked from it, that feels different. We are connected.

The time has arrived. Loppers, saw, pry bar and trenching shovel in the wheelbarrow. I meditate briefly to Ma'am Gaia, accepting responsibility for my original bad decision to plant the tree, and vowing to learn from it. Lop off the branches, chop off some feeder roots, now work on the trunk and main roots. Main roots left in the ground will compost eventually, yet for some reason I don't like to just saw them all off. After extracting dozens of saw palmettos, I'm good with a pry bar, and I use it to work out some of the main roots along with the root ball.

It's done. Twenty minutes of work have erased three years of growth. As I wheel the pieces away to leave them for tomorrow's brush pickup, I marvel at how little they weigh, for something that could capture that much sunlight and turn it into that much fruit. I think back to when I planted it three years ago, and how much has happened since then, and wonder what the next three years might bring.

Every end is a beginning, and the sword must balance the scepter. I'll pull out another tree tomorrow, if the need arises. But I hope it doesn't.

Sunday, November 1, 2015


My latest addition is a Bosworth 3 lychee or, for the insiders at Tropical Fruit Forum or just someone typing on one of those teeny-tiny keypads, a B-3. It's also known as Kwai Mai Pink for its pink-colored fruit.

It's a somewhat uncommon variety, achieving only a single, one-page thread at Tropical Fruit Forum. The Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden's website describes it as a small tree that is a consistent producer of small but delicious pink fruit. Pine Island Nursery's cultivar viewer describes the fruit as good to excellent, and the tree as a regular producer. The coloration and small fruit size diminish its commercial potential, but it's rated an excellent choice for the home grower.

I did a bit of Ecosia-ing (regular readers--- both of you--- will recall my preference for the tree-planting search engine Ecosia) and found some curious tidbits. A vendor in the Canary Islands reports that the Bosworth 3 is more cold-hardy than other varieties. An Australian poster on Tropical Fruit Forum says its doesn't require as much cold as other varieties do to fruit successfully. Seemingly contradictory, but not actually logically inconsistent.

Then there is the Australian nursery that describes the Kwai Mai Pink tree as medium to large, with fruit that is red when ripe. I'm thinking someone musta' sold them a bill of goods, but maybe they are not so far off. It turns out there is a Kwai Mai Red cultivar. The Archives of the Rare Fruit Council of Australia list both the Kwai Mai Pink and the Kwai Mai Red, the latter also called the Bosworth 10.

Finally, on eBay you can buy a “Live Kwai Mai Pink Lychee Seedling”. Perhaps not the best place to buy a fruit tree. Though if one is going to buy a seedling, it's good to get a live one.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

How Does Fruit Ripen?

I've never really known what happens when a fruit ripens, except that ethylene gas is released and somehow triggers the process. And that bananas give off a lot of ethylene as they ripen, leading to the well-known technique of stimulating ripening by enclosing fruit together with some bananas in a paper bag.

That's not a lot to know about it, so I went to the Google machine (actually, I use Ecosia, a very capable search engine that sends 80% of its surplus income to good causes, primarily tree planting). Up popped a clear and non-technical explanation of the ripening process at a website maintained by Professor Ross Koenig of Eastern Connecticut State University.

It's a complicated world out there, of course, and there are many ways that fruits carry out their miraculous transformations. But typically, as explained by Dr. Koenig, an unripe fruit contains acid (hence the sour taste), starch, pectin (basically the glue that holds the cells together, making the fruit hard), chlorophyll, and various large organic molecules. For many fruits, the ripening process begins with the release of ethylene gas, one of the simplest possible hydrocarbons (C2H4). This signal activates the genes that produce a host of enzymes that transform the fruit from inedible to delicious.

The acids are broken down, while enzymes called amylases convert starch into sugar, producing sweetness. Other enzymes break down the pectin, softening the fruit. Still others decompose large organic molecules into smaller volatile ones that are released, often producing a characteristic aroma. Chlorophyll is broken down, and revealed or newly produced pigments give the fruit its ripened color.

Damage such as a wound to the skin of a fruit may trigger the process too early, which explains why my lemon tree drops a few early yellow fruit that usually turn out to be no good inside. And that's why one bad apple really can spoil a whole barrel, by releasing ethylene and triggering undesired ripening of the rest.

As unpicked fruit ripens, a similar process occurs in part of its pedicel--- the stem that attaches the fruit to the tree. This allows it to drop off at the right time for an animal to carry it off and disperse the seeds to new locations. If the fruit is good enough, some social primate might even start cultivating it, propagating it, and spreading it to any place in the world it can grow.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Walk In The (Palma Sola) Park

Last week we learned about some of the benefits of a “nature experience” such as a walk through a park. One of the best places for such an experience is, of course, our own Palma Sola Botanical Park. And a great time for it would be 11:00 a. m. on Sunday, October 25.

That's when the MRFC is hosting an educational tour through our fruit tree collection as part of the fifth annual Eat Local Week for our two-county area. Here is our event's description page at the website of Transition Sarasota, the organizer of Eat Local Week. Please spread the word to promote our event, and if you can copy and distribute some flyers, they are available on the description page.

Details of all the Eat Local Week events can be found here.

In addition to our Palma Sola tour, two other Eat Local Week events concern fruit tree horticulture in our area. The Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota will have a fruit tree mini-sale at the downtown Sarasota Farmer's Market on Saturday, October 24. Vendor Steve Cucura will have the new SuperHass avocado, said to be just like the Hass but highly productive in our climate. On Tuesday night, October 27, the TFSS monthly meeting will feature Noris Ledesma speaking on jakfruit. I expect that her presentation will be similar to the one she gave to the MRFC some months ago, but if you missed that one, or just want a refresher, this is the opportunity.

Many other Eat Local Week events are of interest to plant lovers. Geraldson Community Farm--- which adjoins Palma Sola Park to the south--- holds its Fall Harvest Fest on October 24. There will be not just one, but three plant walks to learn about wild native plants, including this one directed by clinical herbalist Bob Linde at Palmetto's Emerson Point Preserve on Thursday, October 29. The plant walks require pre-registration for a limited number of openings, so don't wait until the last minute.

With a diverse slate of 28 events, Eat Local Week has something for everyone: fruit trees, school gardens, cooking, aquaculture at Mote Aquarium, charity harvesting for the food bank, tasting local craft beers, and more. It's yet another benefit of living here on Florida's Suncoast.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Walk In The Park

Writers have been praising the joys of experiencing nature for a while now. Aristotle wrote that “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” More to the focus of today's post, nineteenth-century environmentalist John Muir said that “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” Speaking of walks, playwright Noel Coward said “I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.” But now we're wandering off-topic.

OK, so it's not news that a walk out in nature is a pleasure, but a recent New York Times article headlined as How Walking In Nature Changes The Brain tells about some recent efforts by scientists to pin down just why it is that a stroll through the grove can be such a balm for the spirit.

Stanford University graduate student Gregory Bateman and four collaborators recently published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that describes more precisely what happens in our brains during a “nature experience”, as they call it.

As summarized in the Times article, the key is the mental state we call brooding--- the unhealthy internal fretting over what is wrong with us, with our lives, and so on. Physiologically, brooding is strongly associated with increased activity of a region of the brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex.

The scientists divided their research subjects into two groups. Each member of the lucky group took a solitary 90-minute walk through a quiet, parklike area of the Stanford campus, with no iPods or other distractions allowed. The others took a similar stroll along a noisy highway.

A post-walk questionnaire showed that the forester hikers were not dwelling as much on the negative aspects of their lives as the road walkers. This was corroborated by a post-walk brain scan showing less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex in the first group.

The scientists are the first to admit that many questions remain about just what is going on here, let alone about how much walking under what conditions gives the beneficial effect. I do applaud their work, and especially their choice of subject matter, but a description of the brain chemistry that goes on when one walks in the woods--- or eats a mango--- doesn't really get at the experience itself. Let the science proceed, but let's not leave aside the poets.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Florida Hills

I live on the top of a hill. It's a Florida hill, about two feet higher than the surrounding land, made of fill trucked in to meet building code requirements. In fact much of the eastern half of my property is hilly, with a gradient of at least one foot from north to south, and a central valley that became a 3-inch deep lake for a while in the summer of 2013.

OK, so it's not much by the standards of most locales, but I've observed that even gentle slopes and the almost imperceptible peaks and valleys of a “flat” area can have a horticultural impact. When the soil on the slope down from my house is dry, or even when it isn't, the lion's share of the heavier rainfalls runs off. Where there is turf, more is captured. But turf is a tough competitor best kept away from favored trees--- just lift a shovelful and you'll generally find the soil bone dry below its tightly-packed roots. Either way, precious little water finds its way to tree-root level.

To remedy this, I took to terracing those of my slope-dwelling plants that needed frequent watering, or seemed to languish for no apparent reason. Often, the results have been dramatic. To the left is a young Bougainvillea glabra--- the upright growing and less-thorny Tree Bougainvillea--- that I nearly pulled out after it defoliated last fall and went well into spring with no sign of activity. In fact, the shovel was in my hand when I noticed a few low buds, so instead I used the shovel to lay in some concrete edging and level off the surrounding soil. Besides giving rain or hand watering a better chance to soak in, the little wall retains a thicker layer of mulch, with its attendant benefits. As you can see, the effect has been dramatic, with the vigorous bloomer now on its way to being a showpiece.

I prefer the 2-by-6-inch “scalloped” edging with three decorative arches on one side, but I like to put that side in the ground to produce a nice, straight look, and to make it easier to clear off intruding grass and weeds. It comes in 2-foot straight sections and in 90-degree turns. It may be a bit hard to find--- in the north half of Sarasota I know only one place that sells it--- and it costs a few bucks more. The smaller, lighter product found in big-box home-and-construction stores would work, but I think the extra height and thickness cut the maintenance effort and enable one to keep a thicker layer of mulch around the plant. In sandy soil, either kind is easy to lay in (unless oak tree roots are in the way), but I do need to use a level to keep the top even.

To the right is an Irwin mango planted last May on a high spot. Once its tap root is established, it won't need any help staying hydrated, but this mini-terrace made it very easy to get the four-footer established.

To the right of Irwin is part of a self-maintaining stand of Sauropus androgynus (Katuk), an excellent-tasting perennial green. I just clip a bit of this and scissor the leaves directly onto a salad, for flavor and nutritional diversification.

I could go on and on, but let's just close with a couple more photos. First, Cogshall and Fairchild mangos and a Raggedy Ann copperleaf on the slope by the driveway, all looking happy as can be with no irrigation, and second, a non-irrigated green sapote tree behind the house. Even here in Flatland, terracing can be a useful technique.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Fruit Tree Paradise

Southwest Florida is in many ways a paradise for subtropical fruit trees. Though South Florida may be safer from freezes, one look at the limestone that sits beneath its thin layer of topsoil can make our sandy soil seem like Iowa black gold. With multiple fruit tree clubs providing a full slate of speakers, tree sales, and other support, I expect to see more and more rare fruit trees in our area as the years go by.

I recently had occasion to write an article--- with intended audience the general public--- about growing rare fruit trees. It's posted here at the Transition Sarasota website, and I believe it will also appear in this season's Eat Local Guide for our four-county area, which should appear around the end of the year. Feel free to link to the article (or to the Guide), or to make and distribute copies in any way that you think might promote fruit tree horticulture in our region.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Jamaica Cherry, Panama Cherry, Strawberry Tree--- call it what you will, Muntingia calabura is one of the more interesting minor subtropical fruit trees. Actually, the name of Strawberry Tree is best avoided, since apart from being green and red, respectively, the tree and fruit are not the least bit like a strawberry, and there are other species with this moniker. The fruit is not very cherry-like, either, so the best handle just might be Muntingia.

It's a very fast-growing small-to-medium-sized tree, doing well in a wide range of soils, and drought-tolerant. On the other hand, it can withstand only a light freeze, and can't take salt exposure. Not unattractive in growth habit or bloom, it produces ample amounts of fruit through the summer and fall. The half-inch berrylike fruit is sweet, with numerous tiny seeds not noticed in eating. Its flavor strongly resembles pink cotton candy, and most people find it appealing.

Muntingia is grown from seed and fruits within a couple of years. For those short on space, or in salt environments, it can fruit readily in a container.

As with many fast-growing trees, the wood of Muntingia is not strong. My first Muntingia tree perished after climbing raccoons stripped off its branches, one-by-one in a series of nightly raids. I had bought it at a tree sale, and wasn't eager to shell out more bucks for another. But last year I took home a few fruits from the big Muntingia at Palma Sola Botanical Park, squashed three of them and dropped them into small pots, and thinned several hundred little sprouts down to three new trees.

One of them grew much better than the others, and I recently planted it in my northwest grove, the one least frequented by the masked marauders. Here it is, looking cheerful after all the recent rain. Of the remaining pair, one went to a friend, and the other will be a backup, at least until next spring's tree sale.

The gang at Tropical Fruit Forum reports widely differing experiences with Muntingia, so much so that one might suspect there are different varieties or subspecies under discussion. Commenters in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Broward County report extensive root suckering, as far away as 50 yards from the tree, while the majority have had no such problem. Some find the seeds as easy to start as mine were, others have had considerable difficulty with propagation. Some authorities recommend full sun, but Forum posters suggest part shade. That is my intuition about the plant, as well, and an oak tree shelters mine from afternoon sun.

Muntingia takes well to pruning, and a south Sarasota friend has one he's kept at eight feet that sports a hefty trunk several inches in diameter. That's my plan, as well, to get little Muntie tough enough to stand up to those ring-tailed meanies.

Unless one is intimidated by the occasional report of root suckers, Muntingia is an easy tree that will provide a sweet treat through the warm season.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Richard Campbell on Pruning

Last week I told about the long day that found me at Fairchild Farm in Homestead with three dozen other enthusiasts from the Suncoast Tropical Fruit and Vegetable Club. Still an hour before mid-day, the late summer sun was intense. But after four hours in the air-conditioned bus, we were ready to watch Richard Campbell in action.

Richard is one fast pruner, spending no more than a few minutes on any given tree. He cautions against overthinking the process, working instead from general principles and a few particular needs for each species.

One of the first points Richard emphasized was pruning to minimize damage in high winds. Homestead is on the front lines for Atlantic hurricanes, and a big one can devastate an unprepared grove. Fairchild's studies have shown that survivability starts to drop above thirteen feet. Thus, for example, Richard prunes avocados to thirteen feet, then to fifteen feet the next year, then back to thirteen and so on. Alternating the heights diminishes the buildup of branching at a single level. Of course thinning out the interior of a tree allows wind to pass through more easily, as well as admitting sunlight to the lower branches to keep them healthy and productive.

Our first stop was the native tree area. I was pleased to hear that Richard considers the American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) an excellent-tasting fruit. Regular readers will recall that I acquired a small one last year and planted it next to the woods to the south of my house. Richard said that the 13-foot rule doesn't apply to this species, as it has very flexible branches that make it hurricane-proof. He took off a few dead branches but otherwise left the 30-foot tree on its own.

For most fruit trees, however, Richard recommends very vigorous pruning, and not only to withstand high winds. He explained that modern fruit trees are adapted to pruning, which stimulates and promotes growth, rejuvenating the tree and increasing productivity. The energy the tree produces should go into its fruit rather than maintaining a lot of wood, so another general goal is to increase the “leaf-to-wood ratio.” Of course for any plant, dead wood cannot be a benefit and removing it is always correct.

Our first demo was an ultra-rare Wilson Popenoe avocado. Near the ground, the trunk was massive, having been top-worked several times. Indeed, Richard estimated that the original tree was planted around 1940. He was up the tree in a flash, sawing off the largest main branch. Its removal cut the height of the tree by nearly a third. Richard says there is little point in trying to shape an avocado, since they are vigorous growers that won't keep their shape anyway. The main goal is simply to limit its height. Clipping a few other branches to thin out the interior, the first tree of the day was finished in a couple of minutes.

The bark of avocado trees is vulnerable to sunburn, and Richard suggests protecting newly-exposed wood with white latex paint--- just dilute it with water in a spray bottle and apply.

Next we went to a small collection of fairly young jakfruit. Because of the danger of dieback, these should be pruned only during the hot, rainy season when the tree grows fastest. To promote fruiting, “bring it down and bring it up.” That is, prune the top to limit the height, and remove low branches to allow light and air to reach the trunk where the fruit will form. Always cut off the stem when harvesting the fruit.

We finished up with Richard's favorite of all fruits, the mango. He claims to have eaten more of them than any other human being. Nothing I could write here could compare to the value of watching Richard's online videos, such as tippingpruning young mango trees, and pruning vigorous mango trees.

After hearing about some of the new varieties being developed at Fairchild and at the Zill enterprise, and tasting some samples right off the trees, we made our way back to the bus. It was time for goodbyes, and taking photos of people rather than trees. Here I am next to Richard--- I'm the taller and half-as-strong one. On the other side of Richard is Larissa, a very knowledgeable grower in the Crafton-and-Berto circle a ways down the coast. At the two edges are friends Michael and Kevin, who are members of the MRFC and TFSS as well as STFVC. And behind the camera was another three-clubber, MRFC Secretary Josh Starry.

Richard was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge, spending more than two hours with us, and we were grateful and inspired. From there we were off to an excellent lunch at the Verde Community Farm and Market, and a brief tour of the community farm before the return trip home. Despite the lengthy journey and the hours in the hot sun, the day had flown by. Unforgettable.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Down On The Farm

Once in a while you wake up knowing that today is a day you will remember for the rest of your life, and that happened to me last Tuesday. I would be joining some fellow members of the Suncoast Tropical Fruit and Vegetable Club on a trip to the Fairchild Farm, to be instructed in the art of pruning fruit trees by no less a figure than Richard Campbell, Director of Horticulture of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

I'm a slow starter in the morning, and the clock said 3:00 when I staggered out of bed. After a light workout, a big breakfast, and assorted morning devotions, I felt nearly human. Picking up a couple of fruit tree pals on the way, I rolled up to the Suncoast club's meeting site in Nokomis at 6:00. A quarter hour later, a big bus appeared, and by the time the sun peeked over the horizon, three dozen of us were on our way. The back of the bus seemed to collect some of the most passionate enthusiasts, or at least the noisiest, and we talked fruit trees and other horticultural matters all the way to Homestead.

Disembarking from our air-conditioned bubble into the steamy tropical air, we were joined by Richard, sporting a canary yellow shirt and a well-worn leather sun hat. As those who have been to a Fairchild Mango Festival know, Richard has a lot to say. Carrying a folding tree saw and a pair of hand pruners, he poured out a steady stream of horticultural wisdom, historical background, entertaining stories, and general information. The first stop was the native plant area, and then into the groves, for a crash course in how to prune avocados, jakfruit, mamey, and mangos, mangos, mangos.

Remarkably, Richard does all of the pruning of the Fairchild Farm groves, before and after his full days at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, and in addition to multiple business and professional enterprises. And his own house on one acre has about 150 fruit trees. A busy man, indeed, yet generous with his time and knowledge, for a most appreciative audience.

Thanks go to MRFC Secretary Josh Starry for this panorama of us:

Next week I'll pass along some of Richard's pruning wisdom.

Sunday, August 30, 2015


Whenever I have occasion to recommend mango varieties, Pickering is on the list. Perhaps the closest to a true dwarf mango tree, it bears consideration by anyone for whom space is a concern. That is, pretty much every dooryard grower.

Pickering is among the many mango varieties to emerge from the Zill enterprise in Boynton Beach. According to Walter Zill, a chance seedling caught his eye in 1980--- at four feet of height and only an inch of trunk diameter, it already carried a half dozen small fruit. They ripened to yellow, with flavor somewhat like a Carrie, or Carrie's parent Julie. A mature Carrie a few feet from the seedling was most likely the parent.

The seedling took some freeze damage in 1983, but recovered and was successfully transplanted. With its ultra-compact growth habit and reliable production of fine-tasting fruit, and a name provided by Zill's friend Dr. Wayne Pickering, a new variety was born.

There has been discussion on the Tropical Fruit Forum about whether the flavor of Pickering mangos has elements of coconut. Some folks report it, other not. Possibilities are varying flavors of fruit depending on soil and other growing conditions, two different kinds of tasters (as with broccoli), or two different versions of Pickering trees in distribution. It remains a mystery.

My young Pickering, shown at the left, was planted last December and has grown well, despite a minor assault by climbing raccoons. I'm really looking forward to its fruit in a couple of years.

(For the curious, the small shrub to the left of the tree is a Turnera ulmifolia (Yellow Alder, Jamaican Buttercup), and the colorful one to the right is Celosia argentea (Quailgrass). Both are attractive, insect-friendly easy growers. The ground cover to the left is Glandularia tapensis  (Tampa verbena), a lovely and endangered Florida native wildflower.)

A master fruitier once told me that if he had it to do over, he would have used only Pickerings for the mangos on his city lot. The growth habit is so compact that the tree can easily be maintained at six to eight feet, like the beautiful specimen in the MRFC collection at Palma Sola Botanical Park, shown to the right.

All things considered, Pickering is probably the top choice when space is severely limited.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Summer Citrus

Citrus is about the last kind of fruit tree I would recommend in this era of greening and a host of other citrus challenges. But if I did, it would be one of my favorite uncommon fruit trees: the limequat.

As the name suggests, the limequat is a hybrid of (key) lime and kumquat. It's a very small tree, said to grow up to 12 feet but easily maintained smaller. Nearly everbearing, its fruit can replace lemon or lime in most any recipe. Thanks to its kumquat parent, it's more cold-tolerant than lime, and has edible peel. It's a fast and prolific bearer, so one can hope for quite a bit of production before the grim citrus reaper comes calling. My own limequat, pictured here, is in a fair amount of shade and not irrigated, but it is reasonably healthy and productive.

Limequats were developed in 1909 by Dr. Walter T. Swingle, and there are three cultivars: Eustis, Lakeland, and Tavares. The first two were different seeds from the same parent, with Lakeland producing slightly larger fruit. Tavares is distinguished by its pink blossoms. Also, Lakeland is nearly thornless.

Here in mid-summer, my lemon and lime trees are months from fruiting. But a few days ago I collected twenty limequat fruit, which produced a half cup of limequat juice. Adding a cup of water, an ounce and a half of dates, three ounces of raw, unsalted pistachio meats, a heaping tablespoon of nutritional yeast, a clove of garlic, and a tablespoon or two of Dijon mustard, my high-horsepower blender produced a batch of my favorite salad dressing. It's not to everyone's taste, to be sure, but in my book it more than justifies the minimal effort of caring for my limequat tree.

Sunday, August 16, 2015


A couple of months before Pete Ray's passing, he asked me to take the remaining plants from his propagation shed. He was pleased that I had taken over the blog, early in 2014, and he wanted me to have them. He knew I would care about them and try to see that they went to appropriate uses.

There weren't very many to salvage, since Pete hadn't been able to do much during the previous year (and did we ever notice it at last May's club booth). I share Pete's love of ornamentals, and the two hibiscus in the collection now adorn the west side of my shed. I managed to find a spot for the 3-foot ponytail palm. I had always been intrigued by the Pagoda Flowers that bloomed so well in the shady areas of his grounds, and with his permission I dug one up, which now keeps my wax jambu from getting lonely.

Of course there were some fruiting plants. Two macadamias in 3-gallon pots drew a handsome price at the club booth. I had the same plan for the black mulberry, but it made a few fruits in the spring and they were so good that I decided to put it in the ground. A few seedlings went to the club's raffle table for grafting stock. A Hak Ip lychee airlayer made a pathetic effort to leaf out before perishing, and the Big Jim longan never did do anything.

That was about it, except for one mysterious little tree in a small pot. Not a graft, and without an evident seed at the roots. It promptly shed its few leaves. It teetered alarmingly in its pot, and I figured it was going the way of Hak and Jim.

In the spring, though, it seemed stronger and it leafed out with surprising vigor. I couldn't identify it. I made a wild guess that it might be a hog plum, but the leaves didn't match. The new leaves came out red before turning to green, like a lot of avocados, but again no match. I remained mystified. The tree kept growing.

The eureka moment struck when I was tending one of my persimmon trees. Its rootstock had sprouted a few suckers, and bingo, a match. I remembered Pete touting the American Persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, when I toured his place. He was quite fond of it, and I figure he was the source of the one at Palma Sola. An online search produced a picture of a young American Persimmon that looked like a perfect match for the mystery inheritance.

By summer, it was growing well, and I decided to plant it a little ways into the conservation area to the south of our land. The rules say one shouldn't plant anything there, but it can only help the local ecology to add a few natives. Someday D. virginiana will make good fruit for wildlife--- an alternative to the fruit in my groves--- and seeds for good rootstock if I ever feel an urge to graft persimmons.

And if my ID turns out to be wrong? Well, I wouldn't mind, because I don't believe that Pete put any bad trees in his pots. And whatever it turns out to be, it will be good to look out my window and see something that came from him.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Long-awaited Arrival

This is slightly off-topic, but those who find it irrelevant should consider themselves fortunate.

Many of us are far too familiar with Dioscorea bulbifera, the air potato vine. When I first laid eyes on my 2-acre property a little more than three years ago, the eastern portion was a sea of the relentless creeper, floating on a bed of saw palmetto. A skillful man with a backhoe lifted out most of the palmettos, and I was ready with a few tons of leaves (raked up and bagged by friendly folks all over town, who leave them along the road for me) and wood chips to spread on the newly bare ground.

I ended up with a nicely mulched third of an acre, and after pulling out a few thousand vines as the buried potatoes sprouted, the battle was won. Little ones still pop up here and there, and potatoes appear overnight, perhaps left there by the raccoons as an offering to the slow-footed ape-gods who provide them with so much tasty fruit. But under control.

Not so much in the hopelessly-infested conservation area that borders us to the south. I attacked in the winter by wandering through the woods picking up buckets of potatoes, in the spring by keeping the vines from going up the trees to the full sunlight, and in the late summer by ripping out masses of vines just before they started to fruit (if such a beloved word can be applied to the toxic aerial tubers). Aided by the shade of the oak canopy, and the competition of tough native ferns and sawgrass, these efforts managed to keep the invaders more-or-less at bay, not smothering trees or ruining the vista from our house.

But what I've really been waiting for is Lilioceris cheni, the air potato leaf beetle. This Asian import was released by Florida authorities in 2012 after extensive testing to ensure that it will restrict its diet to its namesake plant. Three weeks ago, pal Kevin reported them at his place just over a mile from me. We captured a dozen, and I released them into the conservation area.

We needn't have bothered, because a week later, a tsunami of the red-orange heroes had arrived, munching their way through the woods. They can fly for short distances, but are generally spotted either eating or making more air potato leaf beetles.

Lilioceris doesn't destroy its food source completely, which is as it should be--- most species are smart enough not to wreck the ecologies on which they depend (ahem…). But they do provide a formidable check on the ravaging vine. I hope my new friends survive through the winter to make a quick start when the potatoes sprout next April.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


It was a hit a year ago, so we scheduled it again. The Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota's July meeting was its Second Annual MangoFest, featuring a mango tasting organized in part by your humble blogger.

Eight days before the grand occasion, three fruit tree buddies and I piled into my Civic and headed down to Pine Island to hunt mangos. The main stop was Steve Cucura's Fruitscapes. After a walkaround of the nursery, we converged on the well-stocked fruit stand and picked out 75 pounds of mangos, of a dozen varieties. Steve weighed them and I think he gave us at least an extra five pounds, a baker's dozen for a good customer. He also offered us a friendly price on lychee trees, and pal Kevin and I bought 3-gallon Ohia's to add to our collections. Heading back, we stopped at nearby Painter's to see what was on hand, and picked up six pounds of Coconut Cream mangos. At both places, we loaded up with fruit for ourselves as well. Bursting at the seams with mangos, longans, jakfruit, Ohia lychee trees, and fruit tree fanatics, we made our way home, talking plants all the way.

Now for the anxiety stage--- eight days for the impossible task of getting 85 pounds of mangos perfectly ripe. I had three levels of ripening speed to work with: inside the house, out on the porch, and out on the porch in a paper bag. Last year's five days weren't enough, while this year's eight days were probably one more than needed, and the paper bags never came out. The rock-hard fruits went to the porch and the others stayed inside. As the days passed, the backup refrigerator gradually filled with mangos that felt about ready.

The Julie's never did ripen, but just kept shriveling, so we ended up with twelve varieties for the fest. I turned down generous offers of help preparing the fruit in order to wait until the afternoon before the meeting to open them. Some had ripened unevenly, and it was a three-hour job to generate enough bite-sized cubes for the tasting. About 20 mangos remained, and they went into seven bags for the mango auction.

At the meeting we set up three tables in a line and laid out the dozen tubs, labeled “A” through “L”, along with the toothpicks and discard plates for the sanitary “one toothpick for one bite” tasting method. We provided the sixty or so in attendance with paper, and pens if needed, for taking notes.

We cautioned the participants not to make a hasty judgment of a variety based on just one tasting, since so many factors can affect the quality of a given sample. Many samples are needed, from different trees, at different times of the season and even different seasons. I think there may be a lesson in there about judging people...

The first mango tasted has an advantage, so we formed two lines moving in opposite directions along the tables. That is, some started at the “A” end and others at the “L” end. After everyone had been through, a vote was held for the favorite, and then we revealed the varieties. They were, with the vote totals: Wise (6), Mallika (2), Lancetilla (1), Pickering (6), Nam Doc Mai (6), Dot (7), Valencia Pride (5), Coconut Cream (8), Keitt (2), Carrie (2), Duncan (3), and the winner, mango “L”, was Kent (12). As we announced each variety, some of the knowledgeable club members told a bit about it--- some characteristics of the tree, the fruiting season, and so on.

I wouldn't disagree with the outcome, based on the samples. It's early in the season for Keitt's, and late for Carrie's. Neither of these favorites ripened very well, and I almost didn't take them to the meeting. The Mallika's also weren't up to par. The Kent's were at perfect ripeness and really were delicious, and with the advantage of a pole position it was no contest.

The auction was a lot of fun. Will Wright, Vice Chairman and past Chairman of the Sarasota club (and also an MRFC member), was the auctioneer, and the bidding was spirited. In the end, the auction proceeds almost exactly equaled the cost of the mangos.

Will had also started the meeting with a twenty-minute talk on mango varieties, plus fielding questions about how to grow mangos. Putting it all together, it was a wide-ranging evening that was both informative and entertaining. It's becoming a popular tradition for the Sarasota club, and I'm looking forward to the Third Annual TFSS MangoFest next July.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Coconut Cream

Let's talk about Coconut Cream, one of a slew of mango varieties to emerge from Walter Zill in Boynton Beach. I've had one in the ground since August, 2013. I stripped its fruit and tipped it the past two seasons, but by the end of this summer it should be my height with close to a 2-inch trunk, so I hope for production next season.

I tasted my first Coconut Cream mango last Monday, courtesy of MRFC Secretary Josh Starry, who acquired some of the fruit on Pine Island. It was an excellent mango, indeed. The texture is fiberless and indeed could be called creamy. The flavor has a pleasant but not overpowering element of coconut.

Of course the Coconut Cream variety has been discussed at the Tropical Fruit Forum. One thread begins with a poster euphoric over his first tasting of the fruit. His description:
As for the taste, it was absolute perfection. I love anything coconut flavored and this mango tasted so much like coconut. I couldn't believe how strong the coconut flavor was in this Mango. It was also completely fiberless and super creamy; it felt as though it left a buttery sensation that coated the inside of my mouth (no complaints here). There was no chalkiness, woodiness, or even scant fiber. Zill's truly created a masterpiece.

It was the best mango I have ever tasted and I am sure that this was not even a Coconut Cream mango at its best. I am so looking forward to tasting a fully grown and properly ripened Coconut Cream mango.
(The next poster on the thread quipped: But did you like it?)

As on most discussion boards, the TFF crowd never agrees on anything, and the dissenting opinions are there to be found:
When I first tried the CC mango, it smelled heavenly. I was impressed that it actually did have a creamy, coconutty flavor. Eating it by itself, with no other mangos on the table, it was delicious... as well as unique and special. That combined with the buzz surrounding it made me feel like it was a top mango.

At the Palm Beach Rare Fruit Council tasting a couple weeks ago... one thing that struck me was how the E-4 mango tasted way more coconutty and tropical. It was like E-4 was "the Real Coconut Cream." Then when trying CC alongside several other tasty mangos... I realized that there were other mangos that tasted better. The CC was still excellent but it paled in comparison to top tier fruits like Lemon Zest and Fruit Punch that really inspired my tastebuds.
Now for one of the forum's most noteworthy experts. Often rude and bullying, but not easily impressed and he does know his mangos:
I have eaten umpteen (way too many to count) Coco Cream over the last few years from well established trees (not 3 to 4 year old plantings from its 3 gallon release) and in a word, yes, they are outstanding and top tier. As with all mangoes, they do have their flaws. They have a very high sugar content and they go from ripe and delicious to overripe and somewhat fermented somewhat rapidly.
You can take your pick. Many factors go into the taste of a fruit, and even the same tree can vary from year to year with weather conditions, so fine gradations seem rather meaningless. One thing is for sure--- all except coconut-haters should find this a delicious mango.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Things We Already Knew

recent study by Canadian scientists has revealed that living among trees is good for your health. More precisely, they found that after correcting for income, age, and education, residents of urban neighborhoods having just 10 more trees per city block had significantly better health outcomes--- comparable to the effect of an additional $10,000 of income or being 7 years younger.

The study was aided by the database that the city of Toronto keeps of its public trees--- 530,000 of them listed by species, location, and trunk diameter. I reckon that just living in a city that takes its trees that seriously would bring some kind of benefit.

One likely factor in the health boost is the improvement in air quality provided by the trees as they scrub ozone, particulates, and other pollutants from city air. Scientists also conjectured that the greenery acts to reduce stress and to increase one's desire to exercise. I'm not sure about the “desire” part, but fruit trees certainly do promote exercise, such as pruning, watering, fertilizing, freeze-protecting, and harvesting. As for the stress reduction, that can vary, depending on the incidence of squirrels, raccoons, insect pests, freezing weather, and mysterious overnight digging.

It would be easy to poke fun at the study, likening it to shockers such as “Scientists show that crying babies increase parental stress levels” or “Study finds no improvement in writing skills from frequent texting”. But having a quantitative measure of the benefit of urban trees is significant. It allows advocates for green space and city parks to argue on the basis of economic returns and not “just” spiritual benefits. But those of us who can feel the life force pouring off of a healthy fruit tree proudly displaying its bounty, or a magnificent live oak that has withstood a hundred years of Florida sun, wind, flood and drought, have always known that we belong in the midst of green life.

Sunday, July 12, 2015


The relatively new Angie mango variety has garnered considerable attention. Named after the wife of Bill Whitman, it was one of the “Curator's Choice” mangos sold at the 2014 Fairchild Mango Festival, and it's on this year's list as well. The Curator's Choice description of Angie is, well, enthusiastic:

'Angie' was selected for home garden and estate agriculture in South Florida due to its compact growth habit, disease tolerance and overall fruit quality. The fruit are 400 g, oblong and saffron yellow with Indian orange blush on the sun-exposed shoulders. The skin is smooth and without visible lenticels. The flesh is tangerine orange and without fiber. The flavor is classified in the 'Alphonso' class of mangos with a deep sweetness and sophisticated profile rich in apricot. The disease tolerance is excellent and given its early season it often can be harvested before the rainy season in South Florida. The tree is semi-dwarf and highly manageable with annual pruning. Size can be maintained at or below 3 m with consistent production.

Several posters at the Tropical Fruit Forum report that for them the Angie is more a mid-season fruiter. Many liken the fruit to a Carrie, apart from the appealing coloration which is a major plus for commercial growers.

The debate--- and there's always plenty of it at the Forum--- is whether Angie is truly a “top-tier” mango. Like Carrie, it has a unique flavor that many love, but a few find off-putting. There are several reports that the fruit is better the second year than the first, which seems to me to be a rather common occurrence with fruiting plants. Opinions about top-tierness vary, but except for the Carrie haters, most everyone considers Angie to be an excellent variety.

At the 2014 Festival, I bought a Manalita and a Neelum, and though pleased with them, I wished I had also bought an Angie. Based on the number of rave opinions at the Forum and the recommendation of Campbell and Ledesma--- and the fact that I have the loves-Carrie gene--- I decided to buy not one but two Angies from Larry this past spring. I'll be surprised if they don't turn out to be among my favorites.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Man From Manhattan

I spent one day of my life in Manhattan, Kansas, the home of Kansas State University. It was October 19, 1987. I remember the October 19 because it was my mother's birthday, and the 1987 because during my drive home to Oklahoma after giving a talk at the university, I listened to news coverage of the stock market crash. On that day, stock averages fell more than 20%. Experts later attributed most of the fall to the relatively new phenomenon of computer trading.

I hardly knew that almost three decades later, I would be writing about a man from Manhattan, David Fairchild. His father was professor of botany and later president of Kanasa State, and young David grew up surrounded by scientists and scholars. He completed Bachelor's and Master's degrees at the university before leaving for the wider world.

After further education in the U. S. and Europe, Fairchild became the principal plant hunter for the U. S. Department of Agriculture. As leader of numerous expeditions throughout the world, he brought back many thousands species and varieties of plants. His impact on the development of agriculture in the U. S. is beyond measure.

In 1905, he married Marian, daughter of well-known tech entrepreneur Alexander Graham Bell. MRFC members who attended Larry Schokman's 2013 presentation to our club know about the Kampong, the remarkable residence, research facility, and botanical park that the Fairchilds developed in Coconut Grove, Florida. They lived there from 1928 until their passing in mid-century.

Fairchild had a much smaller role in his namesake Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. It was established in 1936 by accountant, educator, and businessman William Montgomery, who named it in honor of the great horticulturalist.

David Fairchild had many achievements, from serving as President of the American Genetic Society to spearheading the establishment of Everglades National Park. But he is best remembered as the greatest plant hunter in American history. In the words of Larry Schokman, “The long distances involved, the different people, the strange foods that he ate, the unusual sights, sounds, and aromas, only whetted his curiosity instead of dulling it. He referred to the world as 'my Garden'”. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pink Surprise

When it comes to planting cold-sensitive fruit trees, I'm pretty much fearless (synonyms: foolhardy, nutcase, soon parted from his money). I've planted several just in case it never freezes again here at my spread four miles from the coast.

Actually, the process is that I tell myself I'll keep it in a container, and just haul it into the garage during freezes. But after a while, I decide that it's better for it to experience freedom, even if short-lived, than to live forever imprisoned. The extra work of container plantings, especially large, heavy ones, might also have something to do with it.

So back in April of 2014, I optimistically bought a wax jambu at the Sarasota club's tree sale. Over the summer it grew vigorously, and I moved it up to a 7-gallon pot. It flourished over the no-winter winter, even growing some more, and it was using so much water that I thought about moving it up yet again. But heck, let's put it in the ground.

Getting fruit was a long shot anyway, so might as well plant it in a shady but warm location. I had just pulled out a couple of palmettos next to a young oak tree in the canopied part of our property, and there it went.

This happened early in this past February, when it seemed like winter had been canceled for the year. Only two weeks later came the plunge of '15. I protected the new planting with a freeze cloth, but the temperature didn't drop to freezing there anyway.

Come spring, there were actually a few flower buds on little Waxie. Gradually they bloomed and dropped off, but at least getting a few blooms was encouraging.

After that, the welcome spring rains took care of a lot of my watering tasks, and I didn't see much of Waxie. Until a week ago Saturday, when my eye caught something pink under a ground-hugging branch:

Yes, an actual wax jambu fruit, grown right here in my eclectic fruit tree grove! Deep pink on the bottom, but still a little greenish on the sides.

Now the plot thickens [ominous music starts up in the background]. I decided to give it another day. Sunday it looked a bit pinker. Should be about perfect on Monday.


I don't have to tell you that on Monday [crescendo of dissonant music], there was nothing but an empty branch. Yep, waited one day too long to harvest perhaps my only wax jambu fruit ever.

Sigh. Well, cheer up, it's mango season! As I started away, there was another flash of pink--- eight feet up in the oak tree. Three-quarters of the missing fruit, where a bushy-tailed marauder must have left it. I took this photo, then knocked down the ravaged prize. The peel at the blossom end was eaten off, along with part of one side.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

In The Public Eye

Palma Sola Park has always struck me as a rather well-kept secret, and recently I was glad to see it getting some much-deserved publicity. No doubt many club members enjoyed reading Premier Display of Rare Fruit in Park, by Richard Dymond in the Bradenton Herald, and if you missed it, just follow the link.

That reminded me of back in May, when I was organizing some of the club's tree sale paraphernalia. In a dusty box I came across a printout of an article, Cultivating Variety In Rare Fruits, by Dale White, published October 6, 2008 in the Sarasota Hearld-Tribune. Those who were MRFC members at that time may find it nostalgic, and for newer members, it contains some interesting club history. Below are some excerpts, but I encourage readers to follow the link to the entire article.

There is a catchy opener:
 MANATEE COUNTY - A local group of rare-fruit enthusiasts knows tastes and textures that most people have never encountered.
Lemons bigger than softballs. Cherries that range from sweet to lip-puckeringly sour. And mangoes in about 150 flavors -- including ice cream.
The 100 or so gardeners in the Manatee Rare Fruit Council grow those fruits and more, things so exotic they cannot be found in supermarkets.
The council, and other groups like it across Florida, provide fruit enthusiasts a way to share their knowledge and curiosity about rare fruits and how they can be grown, eaten or used in recipes
Their tongue-twisting list of edibles includes atemoya, cherimoya, carambola, grumichama, jaboticaba, white sapote, canistel, Maher black sapote, ortanique, Chinese imbu, soursop, rollinia, monstera and longan.
As strange as those names may sound, the fruit can look even stranger -- like alien cuisine from a science fiction flick.
A couple of well-known Pete's were featured:
"Mangoes are my favorite," council president Pete Kearns said.
And later:
[C]ouncil member Pete Ray is mulling over new possibilities for jaboticaba, a black fruit that grows on a tree's trunk instead of its limbs.

"It might make a good wine," said Ray, who once owned an avocado grove in Miami.
There is history:
The council took root in October 1986 when its founders gathered at the former Bayshore Public Library in Manatee County. It has grown bigger, and stronger, ever since.
And the birth of Palma Sola:
In January, the Manatee Rare Fruit Council will invite some of those other green-thumb groups to Bradenton to see its latest acquisition -- a coveted asset among Florida's rare fruit organizations.
This past spring, the Palma Sola Botanical Park on 17th Avenue Northwest in Bradenton gave the council about two-thirds of an acre. Kearns, Ray and other council members have planted about 40 trees, vines and other plants, including noni, pineapples, lychees, macadamia nuts and other produce not ordinarily grown in Florida.
In three to four years, their patch of Eden should be reaching maturity and provide a bounty of delicacies for the discerning palate.
"What we're doing here is pretty unusual," Ray said. "We want this to be the premier public display of rare fruit trees in Florida."
I think that Pete Ray got his wish, at least for Southwest Florida.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Pruning Peaches and Poms

This past week I enjoyed two fine talks on fruit horticulture. Cindy Weinstein, President of the Florida Pomegranate Association, spoke on pomegranates at our club in Palmetto, and Dr. Mercy Olmstead of UF-IFAS spoke about peaches and other stone fruit at the Suncoast Tropical Fruit and Vegetable Society in Nokomis. Both were extremely knowledgeable and informative.

Though peaches and poms are not close relatives, they have much in common. Both are touted as partial replacements for Florida's declining citrus industry. Both require varieties specially selected for Florida's humid subtropical climate. And from the viewpoint of pruning they have many similarities:

–--Both are deciduous, fast-growing plants that require vigorous pruning to fruit well and stay healthy.

---They should be pruned twice each year, once in late winter before bud break, and once in summer after fruit is formed.

---Both benefit greatly from thinning out the interior. Dr. Olmstead mentioned a rule of thumb for peaches: after pruning in the summer, you should see some broken sunlight on the ground beneath the tree. She also recommended leaving a few small central branches to provide some shade for next year's interior fruit.

---Both have a tendency to produce watersprouts. These are thin, vigorous branches that spring up on old wood. They often grow vertically. They don't produce fruit, and serve only to clog up the tree and sap its energy. Just clip them off.

---A peach tree should have a single trunk, and about four main “scaffold” branches coming out horizontally. In combination with thinning the interior, this leads to the classic “vase” shape for the tree. Although it is possible to train pomegranates to a single trunk, it's best to allow them to form several main trunks for a “shrubby” look.

---Tip the branches (cut off the last inch or so) in summer to prevent the tree from getting too lanky.

---Especially on peach trees, look for and remove “blind wood”. These are small branches that may carry fruit, but have no leaves to support the fruit growth and no leaf buds to leaf out in future years. They just draw energy from the rest of the tree, without pulling their share of the load.

---After fruit is formed but while still small, it should be thinned, especially near the ends of thin branches that won't be able to bear its weight. In general, thin peaches to one per six inches. For pomegranates, remove all fruit that lies on terminal buds. Favor fruit on strong branches toward the interior of the tree.

Finally, after all that work pruning it, don't be discouraged when your peach tree dies in ten or twelve years. That's about as long as they last in Florida.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

No Taproot? Just Add One

Last month MRFC Secretary Josh Starry and I had the pleasure of touring the fruit tree collection of two of our club members, Craig and Celeste Welch.

Among the many items of interest, Craig showed us his use of inarching, a nifty and probably underutilized grafting technique. Its primary purpose is to expand the root system of a tree. The method starts with planting a seed a short distance from the trunk of an established tree, and allowing the seedling to grow. Once it is underway, its top is removed and the remainder is grafted into the trunk of the established tree. If the graft takes, the seedling roots become a second root system. This provides the tree with a better supply of water and nutrients.

Inarching is typically used when a tree is damaged and needs a boost, but it can be used on any tree that might benefit. For example, a tree propagated by airlayering has an unnatural root system, lacking a taproot. Inarching gains it a natural root system, with a taproot if it is a taproot species.

A secondary benefit of inarching is to increase the physical stability of the tree. Craig showed us a jakfruit that he had triply inarched, giving it an additional tripod of trunks. It will laugh at hurricanes.

MRFC members already know that Celeste maintains this website as an outsize contribution to the club. The Welch family were first-time vendors at our sale this year. It's a delight to have such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic couple in our ranks.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Rainforest Plum

In Florida we don't get to grow cherries, but as commpensation we can grow a great many cherrylike fruits. Many of these are in the Eugenia family. We're fortunate to have a real Eugenia expert, Ray Jones, as one of our club's most dedicated members. Maybe it's from him that I'm acquiring an urge to collect them.

If I'm going to collect Eugenias, though, I'd better get smart and learn their Latin names. At our big sale a couple of weeks ago, I bought a Eugenia candolleana from Adam Shafran, only to get home and find out that I already had three of them obtained from Berto Silva back in January. I don't mind, though, because it's reported to be a wonderful fruiting plant.

The fruit of E. candolleana is described at the Tropical Fruit Forum as "absolutely delicious" with "firm and sweet flesh", and "definitely plumlike with a unique complex taste, very juicy and melting texture." Also called Rainforest Plum, and also called cambui roxo in its native Brazil, it is an attractive evergreen shrub or small tree, though it can eventually grow into a very large tree in its native habitat. Vigorous and supposedly almost everbearing, it can fruit in as little as three years from seed, even less in a container. It's said to be a recent arrival to Florida, perhaps in the past five years, although I would check with Ray before believing that.

At four miles from the coast, and perhaps in a bit of a cold pocket, I always have to think about freeze tolerance. One report from Texas claims that a Rainforest Plum survived a drop to 25 degrees with only minor damage. With four plants, I can keep some in pots and try others in the ground to test their limits.

On the negative side, the fruit is best if it fully ripens on the tree, and Adam reports that the birds in his neighborhood haven't been waiting that long. But we face that problem with many of our fruits, and if reports of their prolific production hold true here, we can produce Rainforest Plums faster than robbers can eat them.

With luck I'll be bringing some Rainforest Plum fruit and eventually some seedlings to the club tables.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


I'll admit I was apprehensive. Hall of Fame Fruit Tree Sale Organizer Betty Kearns had retired undefeated, giving ample notice. When no one stepped forward, she bailed us out on this year's sale. Let's just call it a phased retirement.

When the big day came, though, the club rose to the occasion. It's hard, but I'll resist the temptation to name names, since inevitably some very deserving folks wouldn't get their due. High on the list are the oh-so-important cashiers and tag pullers. They are on the front lines, and if they don't get things right, it usually comes out of the club's pocket. So many other moving parts, too--- fertilizer sales, holding area, chit counters, cash counters, plant unloaders and loaders, the club booth. And the make-or-break publicity effort. Give yourselves a humongous pat on the back, sale volunteers!

How was my tree sale day? The remarkable selection available at our sale helped me with some long-term wants. I bought a hard-to-find Fairchild #2 canistel to accompany my Trompo. For the avocado collection, I snapped up an ultra-rare Jose Antonio from Wayne Clifton--- along with two more of them for friends--- and a rarely-seen Catalina. Plus the grafted Zill Dark Surinam Cherry I've been seeking for ages. For a friend with has been yearning for a jaboticaba, Adam Schafran gave me a great price on a ready-to-fruit red jabo. And I added some of his rare tropicals to my container collection.

Earlier this year, after my wife tasted our Tropic Beauty peaches, I heard pleas to add another peach tree. The lovely Tropic Snow I bought from a club member will keep me in good graces at home.

From first-time vendors Craig and Celeste Welch (yes, the Celeste who manages our website, and who put the word about our sale out onto social media), I bought two Ingas that will make a perfect nitrogen-fixing screen needed in my church's landscaping.

And I took home a Younghans white sapote, a gift from a great fruit man. How good can a day be?

So what's the bottom line? Here in the bean-counting department, we are still nailing down the final details, but I can say that total sales increased more than 10% in dollars. On the other side of the ledger, our overhead costs dropped a bit. Adding it all up, the club banks 15% more than last year.

And we signed up 17 new members. I think this fruit tree thing may be starting to catch on.

We really do need to let Betty off the treadmill, so now would be a perfect headline-grabbing time for a noble volunteer to step forward to be tree sale chair for 2016. We've got a great thing going, perhaps the best one-day fruit tree sale in the land. Let's keep it up!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

How Short Is Short?

The experts say to keep your fruit trees short. And with good reason--- with a small tree, it's ever so much easier to thin or harvest fruit, prune, spray foliar nutrients, and so on.

Keeping them short sounds easy enough. After all, we're considerably faster and more agile than a tree, and we're armed with clippers, loppers, tree saws, and even chain saws should the need arise. But Chris Rollins once quipped that the main reason to prune a tree is to correct the mistakes you made the last time you pruned it. Pruning is another one of those horticultural arts that you can learn about at your local rare fruit tree club.

All well and good, but assuming that one knows how to do it, just how short is short? Dr. Jonathan Crane, Associate Director of the Tropical Research and Education Center, was willing to spell it out in an informative powerpoint called The Ten Most Popular Subtropical Fruit Trees for the Home Landscape. His recommended heights, in feet:

Atemoya, 6-12

Avocado, 10-15

Canistel, 10-12

Carambola, 6-12

Chocolate Persimmon (what I used to call Black Sapote, until Noris Ledesma suggested this catchy handle), 12-15

Guava, 3-10

Jakfruit, 8-12

Longan, 10-15

Loquat, 12-15

Lychee, 10-15

Mamey Sapote, 12-15

Mango, 6-15

Sapodilla, 12-15

Sugar Apple, 6-12

White Sapote, 10-15

Dr. Crane's recommendation for guava is eye-catching--- as little as three feet! At his presentation at the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota last month, he explained that even kept this short, a guava will bud, bloom, and produce fruit. As one who would rather have a guava tree than a guava bush, eight to ten feet sounds better to me. On the other hand, I wonder how a guava hedge might look along the driveway...