When it comes to fruit, the tropics can grow some of the best out there. Juicy mangoes, tasty papayas & yummy bananas quickly come to mind when we think of tropical fruits. That’s just the tip of the iceberg though.
There are SO many delicious tropical fruits that you may have never heard of. I have found a few that I consider the best fruits I’ve ever tasted. You have never heard of them because they are considered unmarketable because they don’t ship well.
Lucky for us, the backyard to the table is not very far. If you are thinking of starting a tropical food forest, consider some of the following 12 best uncommon fruits to grow in the tropics. I am sure this list will not disappoint the palette.
|Tree Species||Harvest Season (Hawai’i/Florida)||Food Forest Layer|
|Abiu||Summer & Winter||Mid Layer|
|Rambutan||Summer & Winter||Upper Layer|
|Lychee||Late Spring/Early Summer||Mid layer|
|Mangosteen||Late Summer/Fall||Mid Layer|
|Surinam Cherry||Spring & Fall||Mid Layer|
|Sapote||Fall (White) Winter (Black)||Mid Layer|
|Mountain Apple||Late Summer/Fall||Upper Layer|
|Star Apple||Late Winter/Spring||Mid Layer|
I put the Abiu (Pouteria caimito) on the list at the number one spot for a reason. This is my favorite fruit, just behind a Kona Mango. I can still remember the day I tried it for the first time.
A farmer in Kapoho on Hawai’i Island had about 10 trees and gave me a 5-gallon bucket full in exchange for some help I gave in their Mac Nut Orchard. I think I ate that whole bucketful within 24 hrs. I loved it so much that I planted some of the seeds, some of which are trees growing in my yard today.
The fruit looks like a smooth lemon. You break through the tough outer skin to reveal a white, juicy flesh that is bordered by a latex layer. To me, the flesh tastes like vanilla custard or brown sugar yogurt.
Beware, eating too far down to the rind will leave you with a mouth full of sticky latex for a little while.
The abiu needs a tropical environment to thrive, so anywhere 1000’ or lower in Hawai’i. In Florida, Abiu’s can grow pretty much anywhere south of Palm Beach.
The tree prefers room for roots to grow, with fertile well draining soil that is slightly acidic being ideal.
I was worried that my property that was just ripped lava would not be enough for this plant to thrive, but it is doing really well. I don’t think that would be the case on an unripped lot though.
So far I have not seen an Abiu bigger than 15’ in Hawai’i, but they are said to average 25’, even grow up to 100’ in some areas like the Amazon. If kept pruned, which should happen for an easier fruit harvest, this would be a great tree to add to the middle layer of a food forest canopy.
What’s cool about this tree is that you can get a harvest 2 times a year! Once in late summer and another in late winter. Now that’s pretty awesome!
If you live in the tropics, you may already be familiar with this fruit. The Rambutan (nephelium lappaceum) is a favorite beach snack with all the kids.
It is a little smaller than a golf ball with the skin bright red or yellow in color covered in thick, spiky hairs. Once you break through the thick outer skin, the inside is a juicy white jelly ball with a single seed in the middle, almost resembling an eyeball.
The taste is a little bit sweet, a little bit sour for that oh so perfect combination.
The tree grows easily from seed, as long as the seed is used within a couple of days from eating. I like to start them off in pots and then transplant them into the ground when they reach 2 years old.
They like fertile well draining soil, preferably in the wet tropics, but can do well in drier areas with supplemental watering. They just don’t like it when the weather gets less than 50 degrees.
The Rambutan can grow up to 80’ tall, but would be best kept pruned low for easy harvesting. Since the fruits are so small, using a fruit picker can take forever, so keep it that tree under control.
That said, I would include this tree into an overstory layer of my food forest if I had larger acreage, but since I only have a ½ acre, we keep the tree to about 10’ tall, placing it under taller trees such as an avocado.
Lychee (Litchi chinensis) are a highly prized fruit here in Hawai’i. Every season, May thru July at the farmer’s market, vendors sell out of almost every lychee they have before the morning is even over. It’s always a welcomed treat where ever you grow.
It is very similar to the rambutan, without the hairy skin. Instead, it is a bit scaly looking and usually comes in red. Inside, the fruit looks very similar to Rambutan but tastes a little bit sweeter.
Growing conditions are very similar to Rambutan, except you have to be a little more careful when it comes to wind. The branches have a tendency to break. I like to prune my trees so the branches don’t get a chance to become too leggy.
The lychee is also able to withstand moderate flooding, but not full time standing water.
In my experience, it takes a lot of work for a Lychee tree to produce its fruit. This causes the tree to skip years when it comes to fruiting.
But do not fret, keep adding a balanced fertilizer 2 times per year and keep the ground covered with mulch, that tree will be producing abundance again before you even know it.
Last of the fruits that resemble an eyeball, the longan is another tasty fruit shaped like a large marble, with a brownish rind and musky white flesh surrounding a single black seed in the middle.
I find the flavor to be sweet, yet musky. If you like wine you may like this fruit, but I prefer either rambutan or lychee before longan.
It does grow easily from seed though and can produce fruit in as little as 5 years from planting! Once it gets going, it tends to be pretty prolific, but if you have a really wet winter, forget about it.
If you do live in a wetter area, you can plant longan in raised mounds to increase drainage. This trick might just get you to fruit the following summer.
This delicious fruit has a cult following, maybe because of how hard they are to grow and how rare it can be to actually find one at the market. The mangosteen (Garcinia mangostan) requires a very specific microclimate in order to thrive.
The mangosteens like the soil to be wet, but not too wet. The weather can’t be too hot or too cold, either. They despise salty air, so can’t be too close to the sea, but they also don’t like high elevations. The ultimate goldilocks tree.
The fruit itself has a purplish thick outer skin with white juicy segments on the inside surrounding a central core, similar to an orange.
If you are wondering how to grow this tree, you probably can’t. It’s super finicky. I live in Hawai’i though and people have been successfully growing it on farms in the lower elevations north of Hilo on Hawai’i Island.
If you wanted to give it a try, you can grow mangosteen from seed, but you will want to be sure to plant it within days of eating the fruit. It should take a little less than a month to germinate and up to two years before you transplant it. The roots are very sensitive to transplanting so this must be done with care.
After you get that far, you then have to wait almost 20 years for it to fruit! That’s some dedication.
When I first learned about the Jaboticaba (Myrciaria cauliflora), I was instantly hooked. It is such a beautiful tree, craggy branches look more like a Bonzai tree than a fruit tree. In fact, some people train these trees as Bonzai trees.
The fruit grows on the trunk of old growth wood on the tree, which is not a common thing for fruit trees to do. It is wild seeing all those purplish balls popping off the sides of the trunk and branches.
The fruit is about the size of a golf ball with a soft, yet thick purplish skin. Inside is a white flesh resembling a seeded grape. My kids consider it the grape of the tropics. It has a nice tarty flavor similar to those sweet tart candies.
The Jaboticaba loves water but is able to grow in drier areas, even in places like California as long as there is enough supplemental water.
Although the tree is not self-sterile, it does grow better with other trees planted nearby. This, in turn, produces a better seed that allows for easier propagation. The tree can also be propagated by air layering or a root cutting.
Once planted, it can take at least 8 years to bear fruit, but once it does, it can produce multiple crops per year. Just be sure to keep giving it water if you don’t live in a rainy climate.
This tree likes the forest edge within a food forest, so be sure to place it accordingly. It’s a slow grower and doesn’t get too big at that, so place it in the mid-level canopy of your food forest.
Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) made the list because of how popular it is with other people. I for one am not a fan of the fresh fruit, but I have had jackfruit hummus and jackfruit used as a pulled pork substitute that was pretty tasty.
When this tree fruits, it fruits! Some fruits can get over 30lbs! When the tree begins to fruit, it’s time to invite all of the neighbors.
It can be hard to cut into and has a latex skin that can gum up any knife but once prepared by someone that knows what they are doing, it can be turned into a delicacy.
Jackfruits are not difficult to plant but must be done so from a fruit that has been harvested no longer than 30 days prior. Soak the seed overnight and plant it into the soil. It can take almost 8 weeks to germinate so be patient.
The taproot on a jackfruit is sensitive, so if this is your plan, be sure to do it before the seedling grows more than 4 leaves, otherwise it may not survive the shock of transplanting.
The Jackfruit tree will grow in a variety of soils, even the rocky soils of Puna. It loves sun and is a fast producer, fruiting in as little as 4 years. I would include this tree as an overstory tree in your food forest.
Rollinia (Rollinia deliciosa) looks like it came from an alien planet, but whatever planet it came from, it knew how to grow delicious fruit.
The rollinia is yellow in color with large spikes that are actually soft. Inside is a custardy white flesh that is super sweet and great added into smoothies.
The rollinia is easily grown from fresh seed anywhere from 300’ to 3000’ in Hawai’i, but needs a lot of water. Just a short period of drought can severely stress these trees. If you live in a dry area be sure to add supplemental irrigation.
These trees are very fast growers and tend to be a little leggy. It is best to prune these trees very regularly, especially to eliminate fruit growing too far out on a spindly branch.
Because of their fast growing nature, they don’t get very big, making them perfect for planting under a larger overstory tree.
This is one of my favorite plants to grow in the food forest. The Surinam Cherry (Eugenia uniflora) grows as a small tree/medium shrub that does well in the shade of overstory plants.
I have an awesome spot in my food forest where I have a towering avocado claiming the higher canopy, a beautiful Surinam Cherry tucked in right under that and a dwarf lemon coming in just under the surinam cherry. Below that is a layer of lemongrass and perennial peanut to fill in as ground covers.
Classic food forest layering at its best.
The Surinam cherry is shaped like a little bell with ridges and can be red, orange or dark purple when ready. The fruit tastes super sour and tart, making it a prime candidate for jams, pies or even sorbet.
The plant grows easily from seed with many seedlings found under the parent plant. It can also grow readily from softwood cuttings grown taken in the summer.
If you are looking for a plant that grows well in the shade or can form an edible edge, then Surinam Cherry is the plant for you.
There are a few fruits that bear the name Sapote, but they’re not all in the same family. What binds them together is the fruit.
There is the White Sapote, which bears the resemblance of a green apple with sweet white flesh inside. The Black Sapote, sometimes called black persimmion has a dark, but sweet custardy flesh. Then there’s the Mamey Sapote, with a brown outer skin and orange, sugary flesh.
Each variety of Sapote grows a little bit differently. The white Sapote grows as a small tree or shrub whereas the Mamey Sapote would take over the canopy if you let it.
These trees are all easy to propagate by seed. They thrive in warm tropical areas with high rainfall and do not tolerate cold very well.
Including a Sapote tree in your backyard will make you the envy of your neighbors.
If you ever have the chance to see a Mountain Apple (Syzygium malaccense) in bloom, you have to go see it!
This beautiful tree has beautiful pink, starburst flowers that leave an amazing pink carpet on the ground as the flowers age. It is one of the prettiest sights I have ever seen in the garden.
The Mountain Apple or Ohi’a ‘ai in Hawaiian was first brought by the original Polynesian voyagers who discovered the islands. It is considered one of the original canoe crops. If the original Polynesians made room for Mountain Apples on their canoes, there must be a good reason for it.
When planted on the wet sides of the islands, mountain apples thrive. There is not much that you have to do for it to produce crisp fruits that resemble an apple in texture and appearance, but taste like a sweet rose when you bite into it.
Mountain Apples are a welcomed treat on any summer day.
\These trees can grow up to 50’ – 60’ so it’s best to add them into the overstory of your food forest. If managed well, it can also double as an awesome climbing tree for the kids.
The Star Apple (Chrysophyllum cainito) is not really an apple at all. It is a tropical fruit that can only be found in Hawai’i or Florida if you are in the United States or throughout Central America.
The Star Apple tree ripens in late winter or spring, producing a round, greenish/purplish fruit with a super sweet, white/purplish custardy inside. It is so sweet in fact that many people use star apples in fruit salad and desserts.
The tree itself grows to as high as 25’ but can do well managed at a lower size as well as in partial shade, making it a great candidate for the mid-level understory tree.
These trees can be hard to come by, but if you have the chance to grow one, you won’t be disappointed in this amazing fruit!
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