Yes, we grow bananas — in San Diego County, of all places — and I’ve seen them. We also grow a lot of other things that might surprise you. Just ask the “plant nuts.”
That’s what Jim Neitzel calls them, and he should know. Neitzel, whose decades-long passion has been rare fruit, is considered by many to be the dean of San Diego County rare-fruit growers.
On April Fool’s Day, Neitzel, along with fellow enthusiast Ben Kotnik, members of the San Diego chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, escorted me on a day-long tour of county properties where edible incongruity is the order of the day.
The first stop: Aaron St. John’s place in Rancho Peñasquitos, where my hosts point to a brace of coffee bushes in the front yard. “You can eat the red coffee berry; there’s more caffeine in the berry than in the bean,” I am told. Roughly the size of a good-size pearl, it’s mildly sweet when I bite into it. Inside is an off-white seed that will be the coffee bean, now embryonic, I guess. It looks like a tooth that fell out of my daughter’s mouth when she was small.
I say, “It’s not coffee yet.”
Birds chirp, wind chimes sound in the breeze: the enclosed front yard sounds and feels like a botanic garden, and I’m already envious. There’s a young Hachiya persimmon, tropical blackberries, a pomegranate tree, as well as stone fruit trees, Santa Rosa plum and Golden Apricot.
Ben Kotnik and his mangos
Ben Kotnik and his peaches
Ben Kotnik and his cherimoyas
Ben Kotnik and his figs
Ben Kotnik and his sapote
Heading toward the back yard, I take note of guavas — ‘strawberry’ and ‘red’ types — and a pomelo (antecedent of the grapefruit) in hyper-fragrant blossom. A few feet away, low pots hold young blueberries, a little blue coming into the green. Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, or Maine — sure — but San Diego? Can these be any good? Though still immature, they are. ‘Southern high bush’ and ‘rabbit eye’ cultivars, they prosper in the local balm, as do the royal ‘Lee’ and ‘Mini Lee’ cherries, two new, truly low-chill cherries. They’re spindly trees, only six feet tall, but the half-ripe fruit is already sweet and pleasant. Most folks would judge these cherries at least as good as the typical commercially available Bings.
Blueberries and cherries — and apples, apricots, pears, plums, and peaches — aren’t rare in the general sense, but do fit under the rubric of rarity set up by the California Rare Fruit Growers. I asked Tom Del Hotal, president of the 190-member San Diego chapter: “How do you define ‘rare’?”
A fruit that aspires to sanctioned rarity can make it into the club via any one of five avenues.
First up are fruits not ordinarily grown in San Diego. The jaboticaba, rare in San Diego County but commonplace in Brazil, is an example. Del Hotal says, “The jaboticaba is quite an extraordinary fruit. It looks like a large black grape and grows right on the trunk of the tree. The flesh melts in your mouth, and it has a sweet, marvelous, exotic flavor. The skin is rather thick. Some people prefer not to eat it, although I do.”
I asked him whether, given Brazil’s predominantly tropical climate, which is characterized by year-round heat and humidity, the fruit requires significant adaptation to thrive in San Diego. “No, not at all. That’s a common misconception.”
A second category is composed of varieties that have fallen out of favor, e.g., heirloom apples displaced by newer types (such as Fujis) with more uniformity and a longer shelf life.
Then there are the unusual-properties sorts, including “Miracle Fruit”: “It fools your taste buds; for about an hour after you eat it, anything sour you eat tastes sweet.”
The next group is made up of new species. Del Hotal says: “We just brought in a new fruit from China called ‘yang ming’ — first time in the country. A couple of our members had it shipped from China. It’s the size of a golf ball, tart-sweet, soft, and juicy, with seeds throughout, used in jams, jellies, and drinks. It’s prized in China but practically unknown here.”
Finally, we come to perhaps the widest-ranging rarities — fruit not grown here commercially. Some are stone fruits commonplace in other regions, such as peaches, along with their new, portmanteau hybrids: apriums, plumcots, pluots, nectaplums, peachcottams, and cherryplums. (Others are what Del Hotal labels sub-tropical, e.g., dragon fruit, guavas, mangoes, and pineapples.)
Then there’s the cherished cherimoya.
To the unschooled, “cherimoya” suggests the tropics, but according to Kotnik, that’s not the case. Native to the western slopes of the Andes, they thrive in Spain, New Zealand, some Asian locales — and in Southern California, notably San Diego and Santa Barbara. Turns out that, while they can’t tolerate much frost they do need to “chill out”; that is, spend some nights at 33–45 degrees.
Kotnik tells me, “When I introduce people to the cherimoya for the first time, they tend to taste it and say, ‘It’s good, a little different.’ It’s the fifth one that sort of gets you hooked on it. If you’ve tried it once or twice, try it about five times, and you’ll know whether it’s for you or not.”
Is the cherimoya “right for me?” Instead of asking my doctor, I drop in one night on the California Rare Fruit Growers’ “cherimoya extravaganza” at Balboa Park. After a circuitous route — past dark, the place is devoid of tourists and a little spooky — I find Room 101, the Majorca, where growers and fans of rare fruit, as well as the simply curious, are gathered to celebrate the cherimoya. In a kitchen that adjoins the meeting room, stalwarts peel, pit, and slice cherimoyas, which range in size from a Hass avocado to a standard pineapple. Bright green, slightly conical, and covered with armor-like rows of panels, the cherimoya looks a little like an artichoke, or maybe a hand grenade. As the fruit fête commences, first-time guests are invited to stand up and introduce themselves.