FROM THE GOOD EARTH: PLUCKED FROM THE TROPICS

Rare Fruit Council president shares
her love of exotic, homegrown flavors

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Susan Lerner, president Rare Fruit Council, under her jackfruit tree Photo by Ben Rusnak

BY DEBORAH S. HARTZ-SEELEY

Jaboticaba, allspice, alano sapodilla, Russell avocado, nam doc mai mango and pomelo. These are just some of the rare fruits from 20 trees that Susan Lerner has growing on a half-acre in West Palm Beach.

In Florida, when we speak of rare fruits, we mean unusual fruits from any place in the world that shares our subtropical climate, such as Asia or South America. You won’t find them growing wild or nestled in bins at the grocery store.

“Supermarkets are full of commercially grown fruits from far away and shipped with a lot of expense,” Lerner says.

But many of the fruits she and other local gardeners grow are too perishable to travel farther from the tree than to a neighbor’s kitchen or the tasting table at a meeting of the Rare Fruit Council International of Palm Beach, of which she is president. At monthly meetings, the members learn about and share fruits from here and both tropical and subtropical areas around the world.

When Lerner takes Jamaican exotic red bananas or cherry-like grumichama to the group, everyone knows these rare fruits were grown locally, using organic methods and picked only at their peak.

When we visited Lerner in March, she was getting ready to harvest one of her favorite fruits—jaboticaba, a native of Brazil. What’s interesting about this fruit that looks like a grape is that it grows individually on the trunk of the tree instead of in hanging bunches.

The process begins when the plant develops small white flowers on the brown-and-ochre trunk. “When it’s in full bloom, it looks like it’s covered in snow,” says Lerner, recalling winters at her childhood home on Long Island.

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Jaboticaba in bloom. Photo by Susan Lerner.

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Datil lolima bananas. Photo by Ben Rusnak.

The flowers fill the air with a gently sweet aroma reminiscent of the finest perfume. These flowers soon turn into small green marbles that become purple and finally purple-black when they are ready to harvest.

She’s careful to pluck them only when they give naturally. You never want to yank one off the tree because leaving the fruit for one extra day of sunshine can make all the difference in how it tastes.

“We sometimes forget that fruit is the energy of the sun converted into a useable form. And so when it has more sun, it has more flavor, sweetness and everything it’s supposed to have,” Lerner explains.

To eat a jaboticaba, she takes a small bite and sucks out the sweet, translucent white flesh along with the seed. She discards the skin, which can be tart. Then she either eats the seed or spits it out, depending upon whether she wants to start another tree. Besides being eaten out of hand, they can be used for ice cream, jelly, marmalade and even wine. Elsewhere on her trees, you may see jackfruit beginning to ripen. Grown in Asia and Southeast Asia, the fruits can weigh from 10 to over 100 pounds and have a very rough and thick green skin that becomes smoother and more brownish-yellow as it ripens.

Cut into the fruit and you’ll find a conglomerate of seeds surrounded by chunks of orange-yellow flesh. You’ll also find what’s called rag, the unfertilized seeds. This can be discarded, or the seeds can be boiled or roasted and be eaten much like chestnuts.

It’s worth your time to savor the fruit that can be enjoyed as is, made into ice cream, added to smoothies or dried into fruit leather. If you have more than you can eat and share, don’t hesitate to pop them whole into freezer bags. “It’s great to have in the middle of winter,” Lerner notes.

Now move on to her banana plants. “Sure you can buy Cavendish bananas at the supermarket; but these are different,” she says, pointing to her datil lolima bananas. She lets them ripen on the stalk, watching each finger stretch to about 5 inches long and turn from bright green to yellow.

To harvest her bananas, she cuts the stalk or pseudostem and lets the weight of the bananas pull it over and deposit the fruit in her cart. After all, once a banana plant bears fruit, it dies after sending out a baby or sucker to replace itself.

“These are creamy, heavenly, sweet and delicious. Perfect for dessert,” Lerner says. She uses the bananas in smoothies and ice cream. The pulp can even be baked into banana breads and cakes, although Lerner prefers hers raw. She also peels and tucks them into freezer bags to enjoy year-round.

The Rare Fruit Council provides a place where people who are longing for the fruits and flavors of their homeland can find home. It is also a place where farmers who have lived and grown these tropical fruits in Palm Beach County for decades can share what they know of the rhythms and cycles of weather and insects and growing seasons with the next generation of fruit growers. This family of fruit growers share a table of fresh fruit with each other, as well as conversations about how to grow these fruits and bring them to table with family recipes. It is a global table with an international family of local down home folks.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Learn more: The Rare Fruit and Vegetable Council of Palm Beach meets at 7:30 p.m. the second Friday of the month at Mounts Botanical Auditorium, 531 N. Military Trail, West Palm Beach; 855-732-7273; pbrarefruitcouncil.org

Buy plants: The Rare Fruit and Vegetable Council of Palm Beach holds semiannual plant sales when thousands of rare fruit plants are available in hundreds of varieties. The next sale is 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 19 at the South Florida Fairgrounds, 9067 Southern Blvd., West Palm Beach. Enter the grounds from Southern Boulevard through Gate 5. There’s free admission and parking.

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