Here’s a ‘bonita’ peach tree, about eight feet high and covered with pink flowers. The immature peaches are fuzzy, the size of large pussy willows, but already have the classic peach colors. When I ask Kotnik how his homegrown peaches will stack up against store-bought stuff, he’s emphatic: “They’re juicier and sweeter — there’s not really a comparison. It’s the difference between having a top-shelf liquor and well liquor.”
When the talk comes to rarity, Kotnik shows me a couple of hard-to-get items, including a “fig with no name,” known only as ‘#143-36 from UC Davis’. With a hint of gloating, he says, “You couldn’t find it in a nursery. You’d have to know someone. I also have some true dwarf citrus, which is quite rare — ‘flying dragon’ — the only true dwarfing citrus rootstock. I’m growing a ‘trevita’ sweet orange on it. I’ve never tasted it.”
As I delve further into the realm of rarity, Kotnik says, “Here’s a great example of a rare plant, a new type of olive, the ‘Thassos’. You can eat it raw, right off the tree. I’m not sure even if it’s being grown here, and I’ve never tasted it. There are rumors about plans to introduce it into local community gardens, which I can neither confirm nor deny.”
The apocryphal ‘Thassos’ aside, I asked many rare-fruit fiends: “Are there some fruits that you simply can’t grow here?”
They cite dates, which are employed extensively as landscape trees but require intense heat (e.g., Anza Borrego–style) to bear fruit. They also mention pistachios. Certain true tropicals like cacao, durian, mangosteen, and soursop are out of bounds in San Diego, as are jackfruit and coconut palms. As to the latter, however, Kotnik opines, “The average person can’t grow them.”
The search for rare fruit takes me to corners of San Diego I’ve never seen, including a surprisingly upscale enclave at the top of a steep hill, offering a panoramic view of El Cajon Valley. But I’m not here for the view — I’m here to check out Paul Fisher’s riotous profusion of rare fruit. Fisher, who lives on a hill with a flock of turkeys and a couple of parrots, has indeed grown coconut palms as well as jackfruit. His coconut trees, after gritting it out for four years, bit the dust due to a severe (for Southern California) winter before they could bear fruit. However, Fisher’s jackfruit tree, though hardly an aesthetic standout at a spindly 18 feet or so, is hanging tough. While I peer at the notorious denizen of the jungle, Kotnik quips, “Some people say they know about jackfruit — but they don’t know jack about jackfruit.”
Neitzel, however, does. “The fruit tastes like very flavorsome bubblegum. You’re eating the areole around the seed, so it can be a bit chewy. But when it’s ripe, it’s a fantastic fruit.” Neitzel says that this Malaysian import, related to breadfruit, is the world’s largest fruit, routinely tipping the scales at over 60 pounds — ten pounds of it edible. (Fisher’s has yielded a 40-pounder.) At this stage, the baby jackfruit looks porcupinish; it will be ready in the fall. Jackfruit hates frost and wind; here, on the side of Fisher’s garage, a micro-microclimate has proven a copacetic southern exposure, as well as nearby trees that act as a windbreak. Fisher says, “I’m lucky to be above frost line at 875 feet. I’ve got decomposed granite for fast-draining soil, and the onshore breeze keeps it mild year-round.”
Fisher’s compound has a peculiar, almost haunting air about it. Hundreds of 30-gallon containers of seedlings and older plants occupy the driveway, blocking a garage door behind which sits a dusty Corvette. Attempting to make sense of the bewildering display of plant life, I ask Fisher how it all came about.
By trade a gym owner, Fisher says he moved to the property in 1988 and started planting in 1989. “I’ve tried everything you can possibly buy that’s ever been imported. I have over 600 varieties, one of the largest collections anywhere. Of the 600, around 120 are citrus, including the über-rare ‘red Valencia’. I’m one of the few to have it. It kind of looks like a blood orange.” He adds, “Once I get into something…” With that said, Fisher shows me around.
The abundance overwhelms me. There’s ‘Tahitian pumelo’; ‘spicy nectaplum’ — which is said to taste like white nectarine, but has dark purple flesh; ‘chicle sapote’ (chewing gum can be made from the sap); morris nigra (black mulberry); a ‘Baron’ flowering peach with spectacular red blossoms; banana trees; ‘Uma’ guava from India; and a longan tree, a lychee-like berry native to south and southeast Asia.
Not every fruit’s in season, but in the case of the pineapple guava — feijoa — the flowers, apparently used in salads now and then, fill in admirably. The petals are delicate, with the coloration of a cowrie shell. As for the flavor, I’m not sure how to characterize it. Subtle, very pleasant, the feijoa flower is mildly redolent — this may sound strange — of the best-smelling urinal cake you’ve ever encountered. But don’t let that deter you: if you ever come across feijoa flowers, pluck them and eat them.
However, not everything in the world of rare fruit is a bowl of Suriname cherries. In the past five years or so, according to Fisher, the United States Department of Agriculture, in the name of blocking pests, has done its damnedest to prohibit the importation of rare fruit. “Problem we’re having now is that we can’t bring things in from Florida due to the regulations. We have one gentleman who’s been trying to get mango trees in. They’re requiring full payment six months in advance, and a full truckload costs $50,000. When they bring them in, he’s got a few days to check every single plant. If the USDA finds a single pest — which they always have — they confiscate the trees and burn them.” Fisher maintains that the feds’ eagerness to seize plants extends even to the individual, noncommercial enthusiast. “You know what they’re doing now. If you’re on the internet, and, let’s say, you want to buy a plant from India, you can buy the seeds, but the feds come to your door and throw you in jail. This is serious stuff now. It’s really put a kibosh on rare fruit. Those of us who got in before the big hassle, we’re grafting trees, we’re able to continue, but I can’t buy new trees to sell.”