Growing fruit is one of the most rewarding – and delicious – aspects of horticulture. Apples. pears, cherries, and smaller berries like raspberries and strawberries evoke memories of childhood, especially when it is time to pick the ripe fruit, and they will grow practically anywhere.
Today, in the 2020s, life is all about choice. Many, indeed most, of us have tasted fruits that past generations of Americans might not even have heard of. Sometimes that is through having migrated from a tropical climate or having spent vacation time in exotic locations. Or it could equally be through spending time browsing the tropical fruit aisles in your local supermarket.
We live in an age when we can buy mangoes, papayas and dragon fruit as easily as fruits that grow in our back yards – albeit at a price. But delicious though they are, the thought of fruit being shipped thousands of miles just to satisfy our whims is at odds with the sustainability ethos by which we try to live.
For example, did you know that two thirds of the dragon fruit sold in the USA is shipped all the way from Vietnam?
There is another way. The only thing that makes a particular fruit unusual is if it is not native to a particular region. Different fruits thrive in different climatic conditions, and with tropical fruits, the clue is in the name.
Let’s get one thing straight, a papaya tree is never going to survive the winter in your back garden if you live in Cleveland or somewhere in zone 5. But where there’s a will there’s a way. Some species can be grown as indoor fruit trees.
Here, we will look at some unusual fruits that you can grow at home, wherever you live, if you put your mind to it – including a few that you won’t find in your local Stop n Shop or Walmart.
Bananas – the Tropical Elephants in the Room &Nbsp; &Nbsp; &Nbsp;
We talk about the exotic nature of tropical fruit while forgetting the fact that America’s most popular fruit is as tropical as they come. The average American eats 26lb of bananas per year – that’s more than 100 bananas per person.
The majority of the 40 billion or so bananas sold in the US every year (including the five billion that go to waste) are shipped from Central and South American neighbors including Honduras, Guatamala, Ecuador and Costa Rica.
But what’s to stop us growing bananas at home to at least partially satisfy the 350 bananas per year demand of the average American household? The short answer is “nothing.” Banana plants will grow and thrive practically anywhere in the contiguous US. The tricky bit can be persuading them to bear fruit.
Banana trees are not really trees, even though they can grow to 30 feet in height. They go through a growth cycle then die off and new ones grow in their place. Banana plants grow from rhizomes, which are root stems – a little like potatoes.
Plant them close to the surface in deep soil. Ideally, plant several close to one another. That way, they will grow in clusters, supporting one another and increasing the natural humidity.
Banana plants demand plenty of sunshine and warm weather – the ideal temperature window is between 78 and 86 Farenheit. Keep in mind that it will take about 15 months from planting to bearing fruit, so realistically, banana growing outdoors is limited to USDA Zones 9 through 11.
It is possible to grow banana plants indoors, but pot grown plants rarely bear fruit, and are usually grown purely for decorative purposes.
Durian – From the Sublime To the Ridiculous
If you never knew a plant could be controversial, you never met the durian. This tropical fruit is loved and loathed in equal measure across Asia. Surely there is no other fruit that can land you a $1,000 fine if you take it on public transport!
The durian is approximately the same size and shape as a medium sized watermelon, but with a spiky-looking skin. It has a rich, creamy taste, but that only becomes apparent when it is extremely ripe.
In its native Borneo and Sumatra, locals tend to wait for the fruit to fall from the tree of its own accord before consuming.
So far so good, but why the controversy? The durian has an odor that is unlike any other fruit. Indeed, trying to describe the smell has become something of a sport, with some of the more memorable comparisons including “stale vomit” and “old tennis shoes.”
Unsurprisingly, that is enough to put plenty of people off, but enthusiasts say the taste provides a rich reward to those who can get past the pungent odor.
You won’t find durian at your local fruit stand or supermarket. It has never been grown commercially in the US, either, although that is probably as much down to lack of demand as anything else. Durians grow on trees that can grow to 150 feet in height and can live for 200 years or more – in the right conditions.
Those conditions include temperatures between 75 and 85 Farenheit, humidity between 70 and 90 percent and at least 60 inches of rainfall – or the equivalent in irrigation. Keep that in mind when planting, and don’t position the tree too close to your house to avoid it damaging foundations or blocking out light in years to come.
Durian trees have been successfully cultivated in Florida, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. But if you live outside those areas and think you can still provide the necessary conditions, give it a try. The trees grow from seeds, which need to be planted within a few days of removal from the fruit.
The seed should be planted at the hottest and wettest point in the season, with the seed partially exposed to the sunlight. Growing a dorian tree is a labor of love, and you’ll need to give it a good mixture of sunshine and shade – just as if it had dropped from a tree to the forest floor.
You can start the seed off indoors, placing it on a soaked paper towel, and then sealing it in a clear plastic bag to provide the heat and condensation it craves. Give it about four hours direct sunshine per day and keep it moist.
You can transfer the seed to a pot when it has roots that are longer than the seed. Plant it half-submerged, just as you would with a seed planted outside.
Dragon Fruit Grows Fast and Looks Amazing
If you’re looking for a quicker, easier and less controversial tropical fruit to grow at home, dragon fruit checks all the boxes. As we mentioned earlier, the majority of dragon fruit sold in the US currently has a very poor carbon footprint, as it is shipped half way around the world.
Growing it at home has a tangible environmental benefit, and it also makes a highly attractive centerpiece to any garden.
It is possible to grow dragon fruit from seeds, but it takes a lot of hard work and also patience – you’ll have to wait at least five years for the plant to start bearing fruit, and possibly much longer. That’s why most people grow dragon fruit from a cutting. Shear a 12-14 inch cutting from a healthy dragon fruit plant and then further cut into three to five pieces. Make sure you remember which way is “up” for each.
Allow them two to five days to heal before planting. You will know they are ready when the tops become white.
Plant the cuttings in a location that is guaranteed at least six hours sunshine per day all year round. An inch or two of the cuttings should be beneath the surface with the soil pressed firmly around to keep them upright.
The cuttings need moist conditions to thrive, so keep a close eye on them and don’t let the soil dry out.
That early care soon pays dividends. When grown from a cutting, the dragon fruit plant will start to bear fruit after a couple of years. Once it is properly established, the plant looks gorgeous, and best of all, it will often produce four or five cycles of fruit per year.
Mexican Bread or Swiss Cheese From a Delicious Monster
Here’s a plant with not two but three names. Officially known as monstera deliciosa, this “delicious monster” is more commonly known as the Swiss cheese plant, although you won’t see it growing in Switzerland and its fruit bears no resemblance to cheese. In fact, the fruit from this plant is known as Mexican breadfruit – but it has no similarity to bread, either.
Clearly, this is a plant with an identity crisis, but don’t let that deter you from growing it.
Tasting breadfruit is one of life’s great pleasures – some people describe it as a “pina colada” flavor, and there are certainly similarities with the mango, pineapple and coconut.
Today, most people cultivate Swiss cheese plants indoors and for decorative purposes. Pot-grown plants seldom bear fruit, but they still grow those immense leaves that are quite the feature for any garden room.
To encourage your Swiss cheese plant to bear fruit, it will need plenty of bright, indirect sunlight. Ideally, this means growing it outside, but only if you live in USDA zone 10 or 11. If not, don’t lose hope. It is worth bearing in mind that in Victorian times, horticulturalists in England successfully cultivated the plants for their fruit in hothouses, so anything is possible.
As well as plenty of sunlight, you can encourage your Swiss cheese plant to be fruitful by boosting the humidity – keep it above 50 percent – and giving it regular feeds of a good quality liquid fertilizer. Even then, there is no guarantee your cheese plant will bear fruit – at least this year – but you are giving it the best possible fighting start.
Lychee Trees Are Tougher Than They Look
Lychees look like little red golf balls, but their flesh is sweet, tasty and more-ish. There is a common misconception that they will only grow in tropical or subtropical zones. Certainly, if you happen to live in Florida or Hawaii, you are in with a better chance than a New Yorker, but Lychee trees can tolerate a cold snap, and will even survive a few frosty nights.
Planting them outside gives you the best chance of a fruit-bearing tree if the conditions are right. If not, you could look to emulate those tropical conditions to the best of your ability using your greenhouse or garden room. Remember the points about ideal temperature.
You might consider starting your plant behind glass and then transferring it outside into a sunny spot when the risk of frost has ended. By the time winter comes around again, the plant will be larger and a few frosty nights will do it no harm. In fact, once they are of sufficient maturity, lychee trees need a period of at least 100 hours of cooler temperature, between 32 and 45 Farenheit, to have a good chance of bearing fruit the following summer.
Like other fruits we have mentioned, lychee trees can grow from seed or from a cutting. Growing from seeds is less time-consuming than for some of the fruits we have looked at today, but starting with a cutting will still give you a head-start and lead to a fruit-bearing tree a couple of years faster than growing from seed.
A fully grown lychee tree can reach 40 feet in height. Cultivators often prune new growth quite aggressively to both keep the tree’s dimensions manageable and to maximise thee chance of a good fruit yield.
And Many, Many More
Growing tropical fruits outside their natural environment is not easy. But if you take time to understand the basic needs of the plant, especially when it is young, you will be amazed at what is possible.
So if you have a favorite tropical fruit, do some research and give it a try, there’s nothing to lose – good luck!
Davin is a jack-of-all-trades but has professional training and experience in various home and garden subjects. He leans on other experts when needed and edits and fact-checks all articles.