Desert Tropicals

Growing Desert Tropicals:

We've recently become interested in growing some edible tropical plants in the desert.  There are multitudes of interesting and tasty fruit trees that need a temperate and humid climate all year.

In Phoenix, we have fairly moderate temperatures year round, we just need to create a micro-climate to increase humidity, something to help with the burning sun and moderate the cool month or two and the super hot months of the summer.

During some quick research, I found a couple of good resources for desert tropical gardening. is one, which led me to the source of tropical planting in Phoenix, Shamus O'Leary.  So, the twist for us is that we want to try multiple things in a limited space and this speaks to growing tropical bonsai trees in a micro climate.

For a small/slow investment, we were willing to purchase seeds and try our luck at sprouting and growing.  The list includes:

  1. Terminalia catappa (Indian Almond Tree).  The sheer size of this tree and it's huge spreading
    canopy would be the one that is planted in the ground and used to create a cooler understory in the summer and allow sunshine and warmth during the cooler months.  The good thing about this tree is that it is salt tolerant, which is compatible with our hard water and can be sprouted from seed.  The nuts are reported to taste like almonds but can be eaten raw unlike the traditional almonds we see here in the US. The leaves are commonly used in aquariums to add tannins and reduce the PH of the aquarium.  This is a fall bloomer and will start producing around 3 to 4 years of age.  USDA Zones 9-11.
  2. Persea americana (Avocado).  Vena, our seed grown avocado tree was started June, 2014.  Vena has been doing really well.  Vena's growth has been documented regularly under the Bonsai Diaries.  While avocados don't make for traditional bonsai candidates, the purpose of bonsai here is really a documentation of trying to manage shape and size while producing edible fruits.  Vena is the lone survivor of many avocado seeds that were started during that time.  We currently have two more avocado seeds in the chute and June may be the optimal seed starting month for this particular tree.  For those that have not had avocado, ... "its texture is fleshy, oily, and creamy. Imagine a tree bearing fruit of balmy fresh vegetable infused butter. That's it, that's an avocado."  Avocados are spring to early summer bloomers and fruits ripen up to 18 months after blooming.  When grown from seed, avocado can take from 5 to 13 years to produce fruit.  Vena could produce fruit as early as March 2020.  USDA zones 9-11.   
  3. Dimocarpus longan (Longan, Lamyai or Dragon Eye).  In comparison to the Indian Almondtree, this tree is small and is a good candidate for container gardening.  Lamyai is fairly easy to grow from viable seeds.  Seeds are viable if they are not allowed to dry out, which makes the best option of sprouting to be seeds retrieved from fruits recently eaten. The Longan is reported to be similar to Lychee (described below) but having a distinct flavor: "a deep, nutty flavor with undertones of an aged cognac or the peppery fragrance of nutmeg." After trying them myself, I would describe them as a strong canteloupe flavor with a grape texture. Longans are spring and summer bloomers.  Longans grown from seed can take up to 6 years to bear fruit.  USDA zones 8-10.
  4. Nephelium lappaceum (Rambutan).  It is possible to grow these in containers, as long as the right environment is provided.  Rambutan is similar to Longan and Lychee.  They all have a hard exterior with a firm, white grape flesh type of interior, revealing a single pit type of seed at the center.  Rambutan, however, is covered with curly spikes on the exterior.  "[T]he tender, fleshy, delicious fruit is revealed. Its taste is described as sweet and sour, much like a grape." I concur with this description.  These are quite delicious. Rambutans grown from seed can produce fruit in 4 or 5 years in optimal conditions following a spring/summer blooming season.  USDA Zone 10-11.
  5. Litchi chinensis (Lychee).  These trees are great candidates for container gardening and can be sprouted from seed.  These can be grown from seed after eating some purchased at a local Asian market.  This is the one that started the interest in growing some tropical fruits.  A friend gave me some lychee to try out.  The flavor has a coconut aroma, with a simple sweet flavor and a melon musk undertone, like canteloupe.  The juiciness and grape like texture of the flesh make it a very refreshing type of fruit. Lychee is an early spring bloomer, producing fruit in as little as 5 years. Lychee is a reportedly fickle producer, preferring a location 4-6 feet above a water stream table.  USDA Zone 9-11.
  6. Annona cherimola (Cherimoya).  These trees can easily be grown from seed.  Cherimoya can produce fruit in 4 to 5 years.  "A perfectly ripe cherimoya is an intoxicating combination of tropical flavors like bananas, coconut, strawberries, and mangoes. Some people also taste pineapple and papayas." Cherimoya requires between 50 and 100 chill hours to produce fruit.  USDA Zone 9-10.
  7. Annona squamosa (Sugar Apple, Sweetsop).  This is another type of custard apple, reported to be sweeter than cherimoya and can also easily be grown from seed. One blogger describes the taste as " a little bit like a papaya or melon, and the taste reminds me a little bit like a super-sweet pear or apple."  Sweetsop is an early summer/summber bloomer and can produce fruit as soon as 3 to 5 years and are nominated as great container plants.  USDA Zone 10-13.
  8. Coffea arabica (Dwarf Coffee).  Coffee is reportedly a great container plant.  I am a lover of coffee, and could not resist the opportunity to try my hand at growing some from seed. These are not the same as the beans purchased from the store.  The information about growing coffee in planters and some really interesting information about the plants themselves can be found here:  Thanksgivingcoffee .  USDA Zone 9-11.
  9. Garcinia intermedia (Lemon Mangosteen, Monkey Fruit).  I accidentally found out about this plant while searching for the elusive purple mangosteen plant, fruit and seed.  As long as the seeds are kept moist they will be able to sprout.  This is an excellent candidate for a container garden. The Lemon Mangosteen blooms year round.  Based on descriptions it tastes like super sweet lemons, or "...This taste has been compared to cotton candy that tastes like lemons."  USDA Zone 10.
  10. Garcinia mangostana (Mangosteen).  This is one for the list. I'm trying to find a source for seed or seedling just to try my hand at growing it.  I found some that were frozen and thawed at the Chinese cultural center.  Unfortunately, much of them were rotten.  What I was able to try was reminiscent of pineapple and watermelon with a bit of a latex finish.  Maybe a really fresh one would taste better.  Everyone loves a mystery.  It is reported to "The mangosteen fruit is acclaimed for its luscious, delectable, slightly acidic flavor. In fact, the fruit of the mangosteen is often referred to as the “queen of tropical fruit.”".  It is a bit cost prohibitive to purchase the fruit online in order to get the seed, but once an actual fruit is in hand, sprouting from seed should not be very difficult.  The trick is maintaining a healthy producer can be a problem...  I hear challenge. :)  In the best environment, mangosteens can produce fruit in 5 - 9 years.  USDA Zone 11-12.
  11. Artocarpus heterophyllus (Jackfruit).  These are huge fruits and a huge tree.  Our recent purchase and taste test led us to try our hand at growing some.  The jackfruit has an ususual taste, which was recently reported to be: "the mellow part of a pineapple mixed with earthy canteloupe.  It is refreshingly sweet - not an overbearing sickeningly sweet fruit."  The texture is firm and kind of chewy.  These are another candidate for creating a nice understory and are easily grown from seed.   USDA Zone 9-11.
  12. Manilkara zapota (Sapodilla).  Looks like a potato, tastes like brown sugar!  This is very interesting and caused it to be part of my growing list.  5 seeds on the way!  These are great container gardening candidates and can be grown from seed.  It can take up to 8 years for a well tended tree to produce fruit and then 9-10 months for the fruit to become ripe.  USDA Zone 10.