Lychee, Litchi sinensis, is a tropical and sub-tropical fruit that comes from a mid-sized evergreen tree that has leaves that are coppery in color when they first appear, and that turn bright green when mature. The fruit is an ovoid drupe a few inches in size, covered with a rough, red inedible rind that is easily removed. The fruit itself is translucent white and delicious. There is one brown seed in the center.
The lychee is native to low elevations of the provinces of Kwangtung and Fukien in Southern China. Cultivation spread over the years through neighboring areas of southeastern Asia and offshore islands. It reached Hawaii in 1873, and Florida in 1883, and was brought to California from Florida in 1897. Madagascar is a primary exporter of lychees.
Watermelon, Citrullus lanatus, is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, and is more related to squash than the other varieties of melons from the Cucumis family, such as muskmelon. It is a vine-like herb and its fruits are botanically known as a “pepo,” with a thick rind and fleshy center.
The watermelon originated in the South African Kalahari Desert, which is south of the Tropic of Capricorn; it is, therefore, technically, not a tropical plant. However, as watermelon is grown worldwide in tropical climates, I’ve mentioned it here as many people assume it is tropical.
Tomato, Solanum lycopersicum, is related to the tamarillo, or tree tomato, as they are both part of the nightshade family, which includes eggplant, tobacco, potatoes, chile peppers and bella donna. The tomato originated as a small green fruit in the highlands of Peru, where it diversified. It then was either taken to Mexico during prehistoric times or tomatoes were also indigenous to Mexico; there is evidence that tomatoes were cultivated in Southern Mexico by 500 BC. Curiously, it doesn’t appear that the tomato was eaten in Peru before the Spanish Conquest.
Tamarillo, Solanum betaceum, also known as tree tomato or tomate de arbol, is a shrub- like plant or small tree, native to the Andes of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador. The name “Tamarillo” was created by the New Zealand Tree Tomatoes Promotion Board to distinguish it from the tomato plant. The letter “t” stands for tomate or tomato, “amarillo” from the Spanish word for yellow and, in a moment of whimsical creativity, they claim that “tama” also stands for the Maori word for leadership. Outside of New Zealand, most people call it tree tomato but, for the purposes of this compendium, we’ll call it tamarillo in honor of the Maori.
Tamarind, Tamarindus indica, is native to tropical Africa, and grows wild throughout the Sudan. It was introduced into India so long ago that it is often considered indigenous there. It is extensively cultivated in tropical areas worldwide. Tamarind was introduced to the Americas sometime during the sixteenth century, and is now widely grown in Mexico and Central America.
The tamarind is well adapted to semiarid tropical conditions, although it also grows in humid tropical areas with seasonally high rainfall. Young trees are very susceptible to frost, but mature trees will withstand brief periods of temperatures as low as 28° F. Dry weather is important during the period of fruit development.
Star Apple, Chrysophyllum cainito, is a member of the Sapodilla family and is native to Central America and the Caribbean. It is cultivated for its edible fruit, which is the size and shape of an apple or pear. When sliced in half there is a lovely, many pointed, star-shaped core. The surface of the fruit is firm and smooth. The skin and the flesh vary in color from white to green to purple.
The tree grows to between 25 and 100 feet and has purplish-white, yellow or greenish-yellow flowers. The fruit contains 3 – 1l ovoid seeds. The fruits do not fall from the tree and must be cut off. Star apples need to be eaten when they are very ripe; otherwise they are astringent and inedible. When ripe, they are sweet and tasty. The skin is inedible, and care must be taken to keep the latex from the tree or rind from contaminating the fruit itself.
Soursop, Annona muricata, is a broadleaf evergreen tree native to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and northern South America, where it is known as guanabana. It is now grown in Southeast Asia and New Guinea. The name, “soursop” comes from the Dutch zuur zak, meaning sour sack.
Rambutan, Nephelium lappaceum, is closely related to lychee and mamoncillo. It is native to Malaysia, but is cultivated in many areas of the world. In several languages it means “hairy” for the little yellow-tipped red hairs that emanate from its leathery, red skin. In Central America it is known as mamon chino.
Rambutan grows on a mid-sized evergreen tree and produces 10 – 20 round fruits hanging in a pendant at the end of the branch. The fruit keeps much better when harvested by the branch than when it is picked individually. It is similar to a lychee in flavor and is white to pink inside. It contains one light brown seed. It is used in desserts, jams and jellies, is canned and also eaten as a fresh fruit. Its roots, bark and leaves are used in medicine and as a dye.
Pomegranate, Punica gran, is an ancient fruit native to Persia (Iran). It is both a tropical and sub-tropical plant that has been cultivated and naturalized over the whole Mediterranean region and the Caucasus for millinea. It is widely cultivated throughout Asia, parts of Southeast Asia, Malasia, the East Indies and tropical Africa. In the 1700s it was brought to Latin America and California by Spanish settlers.
The name “pomegranate” derives from Latin pomum (apple) and granatus (seeded). This has influenced the common name for pomegranate in many languages. The word “Punica” means Phoenecian as the Phoenecians were responsible for widely spreading its cultivation. It has played a symbolic role in myths and legends worldwide and is mentioned in early texts from several of the world’s major religions.
Pineapple, Ananas comosus, is native to Southern Brazil and Paraguay, and was passed along through indigenous tribes up to the Caribbean, where Columbus first encountered this glorious fruit. Its English name originally came from an earlier name used to describe what we now call pine cones. In its native habitat it was called nanas, by the Tupi people, and is called pina (with a tilda over the n) in Spanish.
The Spanish brought pineapples first to the Philippines. They were introduced to Hawaii in the early 19th century and the first pineapple plantations began in 1886. Dole began growing pineapples on Oahu in 1901; Del Monte in 1917. Only Dole and Maui Pineapple Company have remained major growers in the Islands; Hawaii is the biggest producer of pineapples for the U.S. Southeast Asia dominates the world production of pineapples, but Costa Rica exports the most fresh pineapples of any single country, shipping 322,000 tons annually. A lotta pineapples!
Passion Fruit, Passiflora edulis, known also as “‘Maracuya,” “Parcha” and “Maracuja,” is a delicious fruit that is native to Southern Brazil, Paraguay and Northern Argentina, and is now grown in frost-free regions throughout the world. While it, technically, is sub-tropical, it is intolerant of frost and wind, as well as intense heat, but does very well in a warm, humid climate. It grows on a hardy vine that produces a single fragrant flower at each node on the vine.
Papaya, Carica papaya, and of the genus Carica, is native to tropical Americas, from Southern Mexico, to Central and Northern South America. It was cultivated in Mexico before Mesoamerican times. It adapts well in tropical climates and is now grown worldwide in the tropics. At the University of Granada, the papaya was the first fruit ever to have its genome deciphered.
The tree-like plant can grow to 35 feet and has no branches unless pruned. The leaves are at the top of the tree and the trunk is scarred from where leaves and flowers were originally, and where the fruit grows out of the single trunk. The flowers form on the axils of the leaves, the leaves fall off and the fruit grows. Fruits vary in size depending on the variety, and can range in size from a half pound to ten pounds, possibly more. They are sometimes called big melon or melon fruit and even paw-paw, though they are not related to the paw-paw.
Nopal, Opuntia lasiacanta, is the paddle of the prickly pear cactus. The cactus itself is native to the Southern U.S., Mexico, and Central and South America, but has been naturalized around the world. It grows from sea level to as high as 15,000 feet and tolerates a wide variety of soil and climate conditions.
The fruits, known as “tunas,” ripen from early spring through autumn, depending on the variety. The paddles are known as “nopales” and are prepared as a vegetable. Fruits vary from small and round, to three or more inches long and cylindrical. The skin and flesh can be white, green, yellow, orange, red, purple or brown. They can be juicy or dry, sweet or very acid. Some varieties are inedible and some are quite fibrous. The fruits are extremely popular in Mexico, and both the fruits and paddles are important components of rural Mexican cuisine.
Noni, Morinda citrifolia, also sometimes called “cheese fruit” (or even “vomit fruit”) is native to Southeast Asia, but was spread spread throughout Oceania by the Polynesians. It is predominately grown in Tahiti, where it is considered a valuable medicinal plant.
Noni is an evergreen shrub. It grows in sandy regions and shady forests, and reaches maturity in 18 months. It then produces 8 to 18 pounds of fruit monthly. The leaves and especially the fruit are consumed in different forms throughout the world. Its ripe fruit has a strong butyric acid smell and flavor. Noni is considered an “acquired” taste. It is a staple in the diets of many Polynesians, but both the smell and taste can be repulsive to people new to the fruit, hence its derogatory names. The lumpy, oval fruits have a thin, green skin and white flesh, with many small seeds that are edible when roasted. Its root is used as a dye.
Muskmelon, Cucumis melo is a species of melon that has evolved, through breeding, into a variety of the melons now grown worldwide. It originated in Northwestern India, thereby qualifying it as tropical, and from there was taken to China and Europe.
A vine-growing plant, it is related to the cucumber family. Melons are considered an accessory fruit or epigynous berry, though it’s a little difficult to imagine a large honeydew melon as a berry. Because most melons were developed north of the tropics, we will only mention that they began in the tropics and were developed elsewhere.
Miracle Fruit, Synsepalum dulcificum, is a simple berry that looks like a pomegrante seed, and has the remarkable ability to turn the sour taste of a lemon or lime, sweet.
The plant originated in West Africa and grows as an evergreen bush up to 20 feet tall in its native habitat, but is rarely taller than ten feet where it is cultivated. It produces two crops anually, after the rainy season. The berries are about the size of coffee beans.
Here’s how the miracle fruit tricks our taste buds: The berry contains “miraculin.” When the fruit is eaten, this molecule binds to the tongue’s taste buds, making sour fruits taste sweet. No one knows quite why, but the effect lasts for 15 to 30 minutes. Who cares why?! It’s a miracle!
Mangosteen, Garcinia mangostana, also known as Purple Mangosteen, is usually referred to as mangosteen. It is a tropical evergreen tree that grows from 20-80 feet tall. It is believed to have originated in the Sunda and Moluccas Islands in Indonesia. It is a decidedly tropical tree and will die if the temperature drops below 40 degrees for more than a few days. It also can take years to get mangosteen trees to fruit and they don’t necessarily fruit consistently.
The mangosteen’s thick rind is deep reddish purple with a green stem and overlapping top. Botanically, it is an aril (small single seeds with fleshy fruit around them). Inside the rind, the flesh is white and is about the size and shape of a tangerine, with four to eight segments. The fruit is sweet, tangy and citrusy, with flavor and texture similar to a peach. Recently I found some mangosteens in a market in San Francisco. The fruit segments inside the thick rind are small but absolutely delicious!
Mango comes from the genus Mangifera. It is indigenous to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Southeast Asia, and cultivated and distributed widely in the world. The mango is one of the most commonly used fruits as a food, juice, flavor, color and fragrance. It also is the fruit most eaten in the world. Its leaves are used in floral decorations at weddings and religious ceremonies in Asia and it is the national fruit of India and The Philippines. Its name comes from either “mange” or “mangai” from Indian languages or from “manga” in Malayalam. The Portuguese discovered it in the early 16th century and called it “manga” and somehow it was changed to mango in English.
Mamey Sapote, Pouteria sapota, is native to Southern Mexico, Belize and Northern Guatemala, but is now cultivated in much of the Caribbean, Central America and South Florida. The evergreen tree is beautiful and can grow to be 60 – 140 feet tall. The fruits are round to ovoid, and are four to ten inches in size. The fruit has dark brown, rough, sandpapery skin and a beautiful, creamy orange interior. The fruit is soft, smooth, creamy and dense. The texture is similar to an avocado or a cooked sweet potato. It has a slight almond undertone to it. It contains one dark brown seed.
Longan, Dimocarpus longana, fruits are similar to lychees but come from a different family of plants, Sapindaceae. They are known in Chinese as “dragon eyes” and in Indonesian as “cat’s eyes,” as they are a perfectly round fruit. When their light brown shell (husk) is removed, they reveal translucent skin and a dark seed that shows through, appearing like the dark pupil/iris, which is what gives them their name.
Longan originated in Southern China. They grow in bunches on the trees and are harvested at the same time of year as the lychee. They are sweet and refreshing and are used in desserts, juices, sweet soups, and sweet and sour dishes. I had them first in China and later, in Hawaii, where I learned their Western name. If you have the opportunity to have longons, I recommend them as they’re quite good.