Growing Tropical Fruits in a new orleans Garden
Summer's heat reminds me of the tropics. I think we should be rewarded for our hot, sultry summers with the fruits commonly associated with the tropics.
Papayas are an amazing tropical fruit.
One of the things I love best about them is they can produce fruit from seed in as little as nine months. In our climate, they stop growing during the cooler months, so producing in one year is a better estimate.
Some of the best results I've had growing papayas came from seeds from storebought papayas. When you cut open a papaya, simply scoop out the black seeds in the center and rinse them off, then plant within the next few days. The seeds must be black, or else they aren't fully mature.
The type of papaya most commonly found in our grocery stores here is Mexican papaya. They're large, oblong, heavy fruits with a lot of flesh. Brazilian or Hawaiian papayas (whose seeds can be found online) tend to be smaller, rounder fruits with a lot of seeds. These fruits are generally a little sweeter and more flavorful, but when planted from seed, they can produce a male plant, which won't produce fruit, but is necessary for the female plants to produce. So I generally stick with the Mexican variety because they don't have these pollination issues—even if you only have one tree, you will (if all goes well) get rewarded with some fruit and you won't have to waste valuable full-sun spots in the garden on a fruit that isn't going to produce.
Many New Orleans gardeners use banana plants to add tropical dimension to the summer garden. Bananas are fast growing plants that instantly create a tropical feel. But a lot of the hardy varieties that can withstand our non-tropical winter are more of an ornamental variety that produces fruits too small to eat, have large seeds, or are simply not very tasty and are better eaten cooked or fried like plaintains.
Last year, I went on a mission to find some varieties of banana trees that I might actually like to eat. Most of the nurseries around here don't sell banana plants, unless they look colorful and very ornamental, like the reddish burgundy bananas that flower but don't really produce fruit. Most people here, if they want bananas in their landscape, tend to just inherit them from someone else's garden, because they grow like crazy. All you need to do to duplicate the bananas from someone else's yard is to use a shovel to dig up one of the energetic little sprouts (called pups) that pop up in the spring and summer, taking care to at least get a small piece of root. Plant that in a well-draining, sunny spot, and you'll have bananas for life.
But what I really want from most plants in my yard, is something that will produce delectable fruit, not just something that I eat because it's free. I found a website (www. banana-plants.com) for an online mail-order banana plant nursery that sells different edible banana plants with all sorts of different characteristics. Some plants are more coldhardy than others, some varieties are dwarfs that are more adaptable for smaller spaces (so even if you only have a sunny patio, you can still grow bananas).
I ordered four different varieties, and when I opened the box that arrived on my doorstep, I laughed at how small the little banana 'pups' were. But I stoically planted them last June, and proceeded to forget about them. One variety didn't make it—the Ice Cream banana, which is supposed to taste just like vanilla ice cream, unfortunately needed more maintenance or different conditions than I gave it. Two varieties, the 1,000 finger and the Lady Finger, are growing like mad in a large stand that now includes five to six trees each. They had the misfortune of flowering at the wrong time of year, so it died back with the colder weather of February. Now the plants are back on track with new flowers and a giant bunch of bananas I hope to harvest this summer or early fall.
The last tropical fruit success I've had in my yard is from a guava tree. Last April, I went to Bantings nursery, (my favorite New Orleans nursery) across the Huey P. Long in Bridge City, looking for some plants to fill in my recently moved into backyard. I came with specific plants and trees in mind—however, I left with a pink guava tree.
It seemed small and spindly, but we planted it on the South-facing side of the house, where the guava tree can take advantage of year-round sun exposure. I also planted the guava right next to the house so the tree can enjoy the few extra degrees of heat that radiate off the house during the winter, sheltering the tree from possibly deadly freezes.
The guava thrived over last summer. Normally, a tree takes several years to get established, but the guava seemed to relish its South-facing position. It flowered and produced fruit within six months of planting the tree and actually needed to be pruned into a manageable shape. The fruits are ripe when yellow and will fall off into your hand. When placed in the kitchen, they perfume several rooms with their sweet tropical flavor.
Now that I've focused on the tropical plants that I think can truly thrive in my yard, I hope to have all three at once for a New Orleans taste of the tropics.