Exotic in perfume, taste and shape, tropical fruits conjure up visions of golden beaches, palm trees and lunch straight from the tree. You may be lucky enough to live in places where they can be grown outdoors, or you may at least be lucky enough to have a conservatory, greenhouse or large sunny window to be able to grow these plants indoors when the weather outside stops being tropical. The Fragrant Lychee Tree and Papaya Tree, the exotic Starfruit Tree, or delicious Soursop Tree – all these tropical fruits can be grown in home gardens if you have the right climate or can make suitable arrangements for your tree.
Tropical Fruits grow on trees that can be cultivated in the ground in the right climate, or they can be grown in large containers (and with pruning kept to a manageable height). Unless you live in the right climate zone you will probably not get a big yield, but for the adventurous or romantic gardener just owning one of these plants is enough for the thrill of pushing the boundaries and having a plant that could one day reward you with your very own home-grown Tropical Fruit salad.
These trees can be grown outdoors in areas that do not freeze and make attractive additions to the garden as large shrubs or trees grown for the shape of their leaves and the tropical appearance they bring to the landscape. They will become medium-size trees that will grace your landscaping with something unusual and exotic.
If you live in cooler regions, these plants can be grown in pots outdoors during warmer weather and then brought in during the winter, or even grown all-year-round indoors if you have a well-lit conservatory or greenhouse. The use of grow-lights has revolutionized the growing of exotic plants indoors, since it is now possible to provide adequate light levels throughout the year without being dependent on natural light. Having your own greenhouse is also not that difficult and makes a great hobby-space for the keen gardener. It opens the door to growing plants that cannot live outdoors in your area and makes it possible for you to enjoy their beauty.
Alternatively, if you have a well-lit atrium in your house, instead of growing the same old boring tropical plants like Ficus or Yucca, why not fill that space with a unique and beautiful tree that could one day reward you with an edible crop? Why settle for the same-old-same-old when you can have a special tree to show to your friends and neighbors?
The Tropical Fruits are all trees that can naturally grow to a good height. They come from different parts of the tropics and vary in their foliage; from the leathery leaves of the Lychee Tree to the huge hand-like leaves of the Papaya Tree.
The Lychee Tree originated in southern China, where it has been grown for at least 4,000 years. It was a delicacy of the Imperial Court that today is often eaten canned and much less often available fresh. When eaten fresh you can enjoy the exotic perfume of the fruit, which is largely lost in canning. The tree itself has simple leathery leaves and the fruits are born in clusters, with a knobbly red skin which cracks open to reveal the white flesh inside.
The Papaya Tree has the ultimate ‘tropical’ look with very large divided leaves like huge hands two feet across. The large fruits are carried on the trunk right at the base of the leaves and can be 18 inches long. Inside the flesh is yellow with a unique fragrance. Shiny black seeds cluster in the center of the fruit.
The Soursop Tree is an attractive bushy tree with evergreen leaves and the fruit resembles a knobbly avocado. Inside the flesh is white with black seeds scattered through it and the flesh is used for fruit nectar, smoothies and ice-cream. The flavor is a combination of strawberry and pineapple with coconut and banana undertones – a complete fruit salad. The soursop is perhaps the most sensitive of all the Tropical Trees and should not be exposed to temperatures below 400F.
The Starfruit Tree has only recently come to prominence more for its decorative appearance when sliced than for flavor. This is probably because fully-ripe starfruit are rarely sold in stores. The ripe fruit is completely orange in color and has a flavor that mixes apple and pear with citrus. The tree itself is rounded in shape with medium-sized leaves and grows into a small tree 12 to 20 feet tall, so it is one of the most ideal fruit trees for a smaller garden.
All of the Tropical Fruits need to be grown in frost-free areas, so southern Florida, California from Los Angeles to San Diego and other locations in zone 10 are suitable places for growing them outdoors. They will of course grow in warmer regions and some can even be grown in zone 9 if you can provide shelter during the occasional freezes that occur.
Lychee Trees are perhaps the toughest and can be grown in warmer parts of zone 9 without protection. In a greenhouse the temperature should be kept above 500F in winter and if your Tropical Fruits are grown in the home that will of course not be a problem. Plants in pots can be placed outside while the weather is warmer and will benefit from being grown outside for as long as possible.
The Tropical Fruits grow best in rich soil with plenty of organic material and need to be kept well-watered. Some, like the Papaya Tree must be grown in well-drained but moist soil and will quickly suffer if the soil is flooded with water.
For pot cultivation, choose a pot larger than the tree came in and regularly transplant into larger pots. Clay pots and wooden barrels are better than plastic pots as they allow better air movement in the soil. They do, however, need more frequent watering during hot weather. You can also construct beds inside a greenhouse or conservatory, preferably directly connected to the soil below. That way the roots of larger plant like these Tropical Fruits can spread out and reach the nutrients they need.
If you are planting outdoors choose a sunny, sheltered location for your Tropical Fruits. Prepare the soil well with plenty of organic material such as rotted compost or manure. Plant at the same depth as your tree is in its pot and water very thoroughly during planting. Water once a week or even more if necessary during the first season. Remember that until your tree sends its roots out into the surrounding soil it is dependent on the root ball it was growing in and that can become dry even if the surrounding soil is still moist.
Tropical Fruits only need pruning to control their size, however during their early years it is a good idea to cut off the tips of branches to encourage a more bushy shape, especially if the trees are growing in pots. That will keep them more compact and easier to handle. The Papaya Tree should not be pruned as it only has a few main stems.
Fertilizer your Tropical Fruits regularly when young, with a general purpose liquid fertilizer as recommended by the manufacturer. Outdoor trees can be fertilized in spring with a granular fertilizer instead. Trees in pots require regular fertilizer throughout their lives in the growing season, but in winter when the light levels are low do not fertilize and allow the soil to dry a little more between watering. If you are using grow lights then growth will continue throughout the year. These plants grow best in humid conditions and should be misted regularly if they are growing in dry indoor locations.
Transplant your Tropical Fruits into larger pots once the pot is filled with roots. Larger plants that cannot be transplanted can have fresh soil spread on the tops of the pots as necessary and the amount of fertilizer should be increased too. Keep your trees outdoors as long as the weather is above 45 to 500F. In fall the temperatures fall steadily and there should be no problems when you bring your trees inside, but in spring be careful not to shock the trees with a sudden drop in temperature. It is a good idea to place the tree outside only during the day for a week or so, as night temperatures may be less than they were indoors or in your greenhouse and that can cause leaf–drop.
Growing Tropical Fruits is an exciting possibility for the adventurous or experienced gardener. In suitable zones, these are easy trees to grow and fruit and will provide a great bonus for the dinner table. When grown indoors, fruit production is more of a challenge, but can be done with some dedication. Even if fruit is rarely ripened, the fun and excitement of growing these exotic trees makes them very worthwhile additions to your plant collections.