In only 200 years, Los Angeles has gone from a pueblo of 650 people to one of the most populated cities in the world. Its current population consists of 140 different nationalities speaking over 220 different languages. Such diversity means L.A. residents are exposed to a variety of foods, cultures, celebrations, languages and yes — exotic fruit trees.
Thanks to our relentless sun, low chill hours and consistently warm temperatures, Los Angeles is one of the few places in the entire country where green thumbs can test their skills on cherimoyas, pitangatubas, dragon fruit, longans, jujubes, jaboticabas, Surinam cherries, pineapple guava, canistels, mulberries and many more.
But why should you care? Well, growing exotic fruit trees offers the wonderful challenge of nurturing something unique — and you get to eat something delicious while supporting your health and immune system. All this with the added bonuses of impressing your friends when they pop by and possibly quelling that angry neighbor with a one-of-a-kind peace offering.
If you have a large yard, small patio, balcony or window with direct sunlight, you have the opportunity to grow many of these fruits in Southern California. If you are keen, patient, determined, and maybe sing to them every now and then, you just might be rewarded with a delicious snack that keeps you happy and healthy.
Are you a patient human on a tight budget? Or Mrs. Money Bags with plenty of dough to invest? No matter where you land on the (fruit) pie chart, there are options for you. Those on a tighter budget can plant these “little angels” from seed and watch them grow over several years until they can eventually taste the fruits of their labor. For those who are less patient and have that expendable income, you can buy trees in 5-30-gallon pots. The range in price varies, but most young fruit trees can be purchased in the realm of $30-$80. The more mature, the higher the cost.
Worried about water and drought? The trees we discuss here are quite drought-tolerant, and for those that do have a little bit of a drinking problem, we offer a few tips to satisfy the user and the enabler.
Here are our top five exotic fruit trees that grow in L.A., what they taste like, health benefits, some simple tips on how to grow them, where to find them and an interesting fact that you can impress your friends with at your next dinner party, ideally while munching on said fruit.
OFFICIAL NAME: Annona cherimola FAMILY: Annonaceae
OVERVIEW: This (often) heart-shaped fruit that looks like it could be the egg of an insectoid alien has outer ridges which many compare to nipples. Cherimoya is originally from Mexico but is also popular in Central and South America, along with its cousin soursop. The tree can reach 30 feet planted in the ground with lots of space but will grow to a shorter height in large pots or smaller gardens.
TASTE: “Tropical fruit custard.” Cherimoya’s texture is like a slightly grainy pudding, and many catch notes of pear, subtle pineapple, banana and mango. It’s sweet, a little bit tangy and delicious. The only drawback is the number of seeds.
HEALTH: High in niacin, phosphorus and thiamine. Boosts mood, immunity, eye health and contains cancer-fighting properties.
GROWING CONDITIONS: Cherimoya is best suited for growing outside, in a pot or the ground, and can be pruned to stay smaller and more compact. Partial sun to full sun is usually best, but it doesn’t always love direct blistering dry heat. Well-draining, moist soil is best. Fairly drought-tolerant. Use mulch to conserve water. You can also use excess bathwater — especially if it was an Epsom salts bath — or pee on the soil. Just make sure your neighbors aren’t looking. Unless you’re an exhibitionist.
TIPS: You can find this fruit at several local farmers markets, including the one in Echo Park, so if you’re growing a young tree that hasn’t fruited but you’re dying to have a taste, you know where to go.
WHERE: Check out Organic Fruit Tree L.A. They also specialize in dwarf fruit trees, and graft trees themselves so you can find other fruit tree options not listed here, including Meyer lemons, plums, passion fruit vine and more.
FUN FACT: Mark Twain once described cherimoya as “deliciousness itself.” Not a bad review from one of America’s most celebrated authors.
OFFICIAL NAME: Plinia cauliflora FAMILY: Myrtaceae
OVERVIEW: This Brazilian subtropical evergreen produces round, dark fruits that grow along the trunk of the tree and resemble a large spherical grape. The tree can grow up to 45 feet in Brazil. In California, trees tend to be closer to 15 feet at full height.
TASTE: “Sweet, juicy/creamy blueberry meets grape interior with a tart, slightly bitter rubbery outer skin.” Many pinch the skin and simply suck out the delicious middle, though most of the nutritional value is in its chewy exterior.
HEALTH: Jaboticabas are very high in antioxidants, especially anthocyanins, which are concentrated in the dark skin of the fruit. Anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, anti-obesity.
GROWING CONDITIONS: This tree is best suited for outside, in a pot or in the ground, in your garden, balcony or patio. Like all of the plants listed here, it is possible to grow jaboticabas indoors under the right conditions — “full sun” (check tips section). This tree needs moist soil. Do not let it dry out. Too much direct hot sun can also make leaves dry or turn yellow.
TIPS: Though many care tags on these trees advise direct sun, we would not recommend planting one in a very hot, dry, sunny location. Ideally, the tree will receive direct sun for several hours and partial sun during the hottest hours of the day. The more humid the location, the better. Keep the soil moist. Mulch, mulch, mulch.
WHERE: Find jaboticabas at Champa Nursery in El Monte. They have a great selection, decent prices and a variety of sizes.
FUN FACT: Unlike most fruit trees, jaboticabas grow directly along the trunk and branches, giving the tree a diseased appearance. Fortunately, these purple “chickenpox” are delicious and extremely good for you.
OFFICIAL NAME: Hylocereus FAMILY: Cactaceae
OVERVIEW: OK, we said “tree” but this wonderfully satisfying fruit grows on a climbing cactus. There are many cultivars (and colors) of this fruit, which thrive in South America, Central America and Southeast Asia. The cactus can work its way up fences and walls and produces a flower which only blooms and lasts one single night before an incredible, otherworldly-looking fruit emerges, reminiscent of a psychedelic dragon egg. Definitely recommended for Tolkien and George RR Martin fans.
TASTE: Red ones: “A cross between a mellow, sour-less kiwi and a moist red beet.” Yellow ones: “Kiwi texture without the sour and a lot more sweet!” Yellow ones are a winner with kids due to their sugary taste. Squeeze a bit of lemon on all varieties to bring out more complex flavors.
HEALTH: Dragon fruits are a great source of fiber and magnesium, and promote gut health while boosting immunity with good levels of vitamin C and iron. Taiwanese doctors recommend them to patients with diabetes to normalize blood sugar levels.
GROWING CONDITIONS: The dragon fruit cactus grows best outdoors, but inside could work if you have a window with lots of sunlight and a tall pole or trellis it can grow on. Plant it in a pot or the ground. This plant needs full sun, loves heat and humidity, is drought-tolerant, but enjoys moist soil and space to extend its roots. It also needs well-draining soil. Some varieties are self-pollinating, while others require cross-pollination.
TIPS: Though these plants are drought-tolerant, they thrive in moist soil, so mulch and/or groundcover helps. The yellow variety is the hardest to grow in L.A. You may need to graft a yellow one to the rootstock of a red one for it to fruit.
WHERE: Craigslist. No joke. While you can find this climbing cactus at many nurseries, including Mimosa in Montebello, San Gabriel Nursery and Organic Fruit Tree L.A., you might just get a better deal or a larger specimen on C-List or through the Facebook Marketplace. The yellow variety is harder to find, but Mimosa sometimes has them.
FUN FACT: Eating too much of the red dragon fruit can lead to pseudohematuria, aka “your pee turns red.” Don’t worry it’s harmless. Just be sure to flush before your roommate walks in.
OFFICIAL NAME: Ziziphus jujuba FAMILY: Rhamnaceae
OVERVIEW: This deciduous “Chinese date” does very well in our climate. It first appears as a mini apple-like fruit with similar taste and texture. As it matures, it turns into a spongy and chewy fruit similar to a date. They are drought-tolerant and though they can grow up to 40 feet in Florida, they are usually much smaller in California.
TASTE: “At first, like a tiny, less juicy crunchy apple. And as they ripen and dry, more like a sweet, mellow, spongy date.” Sort of like two fruits rolled into one.
HEALTH: Jujubes help with gastrointestinal problems such as bloating and constipation, and they reduce gastric acid. They are also said to have calming effects on the brain and nervous system.
GROWING CONDITIONS: Jujubes can grow well in a pot or the ground. This is the hardiest tree on the list. It can handle most soils, and it enjoys and can thrive under our hot sun. Drought-tolerant, but it’s helpful to give this tree sufficient water during flowering and fruiting. It’s self-pollinating but will produce more fruit alongside a second tree. Mulch the base if you want to use less water.
TIPS: These are very hardy trees and do well in most L.A. conditions. Recommended for those who may have a slightly “brown” thumb. The Li cultivar has been revered as the best-tasting variety and can be found frequently in local nurseries.
WHERE: San Gabriel Nursery, Champa and Mimosa all have good selections and a couple of different cultivars.
FUN FACT: Does the name jujube ring a bell? Well, the fruit shares its name with a famous candy brand. The candy is inspired by the fruit, which is often turned into candied “dates” in many countries, including India.
OFFICIAL NAME: Morus nigra Family: Moraceae
The semi-deciduous Pakistan mulberry is longer and sweeter than its cousins and does well in our climate. Unlike blackberries and raspberries which grow on small bushes, mulberry trees can be quite large and graceful with big beautiful leaves and branches. The fruit of this cultivar resembles a caterpillar who ended up on the gallows, but its taste is anything but criminal.
TASTE: “The tastiest blackberry you have ever had in your life, but even more sweet and tantalizing.”
HEALTH: The Pakistan mulberry boasts anti-aging properties and is beneficial for the skin, improves digestive health, blood circulation and vision.
GROWING CONDITIONS: This tree needs half a day to a full day of sun. It’s self-fertile and prefers moist soil, but it’s quite hardy and can handle poor soils as long as they drain well. It can thrive in the ground or a pot.
TIPS: This tree is quite versatile. You can grow it as a tree with a wide canopy or as a shrub if you prune it consistently and early. Wait until the berries are almost black before picking them. Your instinct might say red equals ripe, but in this case, they aren’t ready yet. PS. Makes a great jam.
WHERE: Many fruit tree nurseries in L.A. carry these trees. San Gabriel Nursery and Mimosa usually have a few.
FUN FACT: Unripe fruit and mature leaves have a white sap that is intoxicating and mildly hallucinogenic.
I’m Rooting for You
If you desire to grow any of these five fruits from seed, there are many online nurseries and Etsy shops that offer great and affordable options.
If you still have concerns over watering, consider planting these fruits in locations where the soil will not receive a lot of direct sunlight. If it does, mulch the area with wood chips or pine needles to retain moisture and prevent high temperatures from reaching the roots. Again, you can always use that excess bath water or pee on the soil. For the real earth mothers out there, menstrual blood will also do wonders for your plants and fruit trees. Just saying.
If you aren’t ready to grow these fruits but still want to sneak a taste right now, check out Sasoun Produce on Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood. They carry many favorite rarities for a reasonable price.