As I write, Mark is just outside picking the last of his grapes. This fruit is certainly not in the luxury class for us. However the imported fruit is now so cheap in the supermarket that I doubt that it has retained its luxury status for many. I almost feel a sense of nostalgia for the days when grapes were primarily a treat for invalids in hospital.
The outside grapes currently being harvested are Albany Surprise. This American hybrid grape is one of the most successful performers in our outdoor conditions. It is a big black juicy grape. The skin is a little tough but that is why it is so successful. If you can keep the birds away (festoons of bird netting here), then the wasps can’t get in to the fruit. But once bird pecked, they will swarm in. Albany Surprise does not require the hot, dry, extended summers of many other varieties which is why we recommend it for residents in our more temperate coastal areas.
Black Hamburg Muscat is our favourite eating grape. These are sweet purple grapes with a soft skin and we consume them in large quantities. For this one, alas, covered conditions are required here and we have a designated grape house. It is a construction of corrugated plastic – technically clear but now so clouded with age that it is a little surprising that anything grows in the gloom inside. Mark finally got around to waterblasting it last spring and the fruit set improved a great deal. I guess I am lucky that we have enough space to have a grape house. However, Mark, who has been watching The Lost Gardens of Heligan on Sky, has been making mutterings about his pineapple house. I notice he is stockpiling pineapple tops so he may be seriously contemplating trying to grow these tropical delights. At Heligan they did it (with mixed success in the modern re-creation) by using the heat generated from horse manure. Watch this space – the long term retirement challenge is likely to include producing our own tropical pineapples. We may style ourselves as The Found Gardens of Tikorangi.
We grow a species of pineapple (ananas sageneria) which will tolerate cooler climates. It is an edible pineapple which fruits well for us and looks very decorative and exotic growing against a warm brick wall but our summers are rarely hot enough to ripen the fruit properly. I understand that it is more successful in Northland but we have to be content with the fruit as interesting decoration.
However we are not as optimistic as a friend of mine who asked me about growing lychees. I had to tell her that she really was being too hopeful. Apparently some have been trying for years to grow them in the north but we have never heard if they have had success. We may describe our climate as temperate to sub tropical here, but we are not warm enough to warrant claiming to be tropical. “Roll on global warming,” was her response.
I occasionally buy tinned lychees and have found them fresh in Asia. Lychees take to being canned very well and if you strain off the heavy syrup favoured by many Asian canning operations, the fruit tastes remarkably similar to the fresh specimens. I have never quite worked out whether rambutan are the same fruit as lychees. If any reader knows more, I would be pleased to hear. Rambutan are available for sale in Thailand and once you peel away the reddish skin (which looks a little like a chestnut case), the fruit inside seems to all intents and purposes to be what we buy as lychees.
Rather than lychees, it is the tropical guava I wish we could grow. The delicious big salmon pink pear shaped fruit. Remember the time when those of us who were politically active in the seventies used to boycott this tinned treat because it came from South Africa? We were encouraged to boycott all South African produce as a protest against apartheid. For the life of me I can not recall anything else from that country that we avoided at the time but I do remember being a little sad at having to forgo the occasional can of guavas. I have never tried a fresh guava. Mark was delighted to spot a plant in an Auckland garden many years ago (now I think about it, I don’t know how he recognised it). It set fruit there (but not of much quality) and the owner gave Mark a couple of seed which never came to anything.
We have to make do with what we call guava bushes here – little round fruits with biggish pips which come in red or yellow. Beyond hailing from Chile, we have no idea of the botanical background of this plant or whether they are even related to the tropical guava, although they have similar pips. Apparently they are sometimes referred to as the strawberry guava or the Cattley guava and as far as we know belong to the myrtus family. We grow these out of sentiment more than anything. The fruit is perfectly edible and pleasant enough to browse on as one passes by, but is hardly the taste treat of the decade. But when our children were little, we lived in a house with a very good guava bush which the children shared with the wood pigeons who also prized the fruit. We both have fond memories of Elder Daughter, aged about three, poddling round to eat some fruit but almost jumping out of her skin when she disturbed a kereru already there. They are very big birds close up.
Mark planted a couple of guava bushes, both red and yellow, in a border out from our dining room. This is forward planning. He hopes one day we may have grandchildren who will come and visit and enjoy eating the fruit from the bush. We may be waiting a long time for any of the next generation to make an appearance but we will be prepared.
And the feijoas are ripening. This was a fruit unknown in my Dunedin childhood and it is still largely unknown in most of the world (except the parts of South America where it originated). Our children grew up in the house with the guava bush but it also boasted four superb feijoa trees which produced large fruit over several months. They would sit under the trees with teaspoons, scooping out the flesh and taking it all for granted. Now they are highly prized and a highlight for Elder Daughter, who is still in Canberra, is the one bag of fruit she is usually given by her bus driver each autumn.
Don’t overlook the feijoa as a worthwhile plant in a family garden. It is great for hedging but even more rewarding at this time of the year. The kiwifruit came from China as a Chinese gooseberry and feijoas from South America, but in New Zealand we appear to have adopted both fruits as if they are our very own, almost according them iconic status here. While grapes and rampant kiwifruit need some management to grow, and while pineapples, lychees and tropical guavas are a real challenge, the not so humble feijoa belongs more to the Plant It and Leave It school of easy gardening.