We Alabamians have never been entirely comfortable with our “tropicalness.” If you ask an Alabama gardener what fruit he thinks he might want to grow in his yard, an apple naturally bobs to the top of his brain. Shortly following on that list will be cherries, plums, peaches, raspberries – the kind of fruiting trees and shrubs you read about in gardening books written for New Jersey or England, the very fruiting trees guaranteed to give gardeners in Alabama fits.
What’s even more odd about our typical wish list of homegrown fruits is that we so often overlook the tropical fruits that Alabama gardeners have been growing for centuries. These are, ironically, the very fruits that are easiest for us to grow, the fruits, I’d argue, that Alabama does as well or better than any place else – the figs and Japanese persimmons that thrive throughout the state, or Alabama-adapted citrus like the satsumas that reach perfection along the Gulf Coast and almost nowhere else but the Gulf Coast.
No, there’s no quarter of Alabama that can claim to be mango tropical. And because Alabama is such a tall state, with its head in the Appalachians and its feet in a subtropical ocean, the list of tropical plants that can be grown in Huntsville is very different than the list that can be grown in Mobile.
But the simple fact is, gardeners all over Alabama not only can grow tropical fruit, most of them in fact do. And my task here is to remind you how much more tropical fruit you could be growing, and how much happier you’d be as a gardener if you were fiddling with world class Alabama figs, rather than meddling with middlin’ Alabama apples.
Fruits such as figs now seem so down-home that many of us may forget to think of them as tropical. But the definition of tropical depends a lot on where you stand. A gardener living in Minnesota or New England might view the Gulf Coast’s climate, with its mild winters and long intense summers, as torridly, unmistakably tropical. Mobilians, on the other hand, might have a hard time remembering how much they have in common with Miami on one of those miserably cold January days.
The fact is the dividing line between tropical and temperate zone plants is a little fuzzy in a place like Alabama. But there are distinctions between tropical and temperate fruits that every Alabama gardener needs to recognize:
Temperate fruits such as apples, cherries, pears and peaches typically require long periods of winter cold to set flowers and fruits properly, and they have poor tolerance for our hot summer nights.
Most tropical fruits – oh, let’s make examples of figs, citrus, pomegranates and Japanese persimmons – have little or no requirements for winter chilling, and most actually seem to benefit from our long, hot summers.
The nice thing about living in a place like Alabama is that we certainly can grow a little bit of both: We’re as famous for our temperate (if somewhat temperamental) peaches as we are for our subtropical figs.
But the point of growing tropicals in Alabama is not simply to turn your backyard into a part-time Miami just to prove to your neighbors that you can. The real pleasure of tropical gardening in Alabama is finding those tropical plants that make use of and are actually improved by Alabama’s unusual climate and growing conditions.
Consider those legendary fig varieties ‘Celeste’ and ‘Brown Turkey’ that grow so well in gardens from Huntsville to Mobile. These soft and sweet varieties are almost never available in the store because they’re the devil to harvest mechanically and ship. The figs enjoyed by much of the rest of the world – the varieties adapted to commercial harvest and to conditions in much drier climates – are fine and savory. But for those of us raised on Alabama figs, the classic Mediterranean fig can seem just a little too leathery, even when fresh, and it often lacks that liquid sweetness that many of us find so exciting about the figs that grow so well in our hot, humid climate.
Figs aren’t the only tropical fruits Alabama gardeners can grow as well or better than any place else on Earth. I’ve grown to love Asian persimmons so much, I doubt I’d have much room for apples even if I could grow one that didn’t make me wince when I bit into it. Muscadines, our most tropical grape, the Japanese plums we call loquats, pomegranates, jelly palms – all have a special place in some or all of Alabama.
Strange as it may seem, even our freezing temperatures may help gardeners to grow tropicals that can’t easily be grown in other places. Gardeners on Alabama’s Gulf Coast are among that select group of world gardeners that can still enjoy the fruits of the famous ‘Ice Cream’ banana. That’s because this and many other specialty bananas are so devastated by tropical diseases, they’re rarely grown in tropical climates (and never offered in grocery stores). But here in Alabama, those tropical diseases haven’t yet found a toehold.
Tropical Fruits For All Of Alabama
Kumquat– I reckon there may be hardier citrus, but there’s not a hardier one that’s as fun and easy to grow, and so much fun to use. Kumquats are one of the South’s oldest and most famous candies – you eat these olive-sized fruit peel and all. They make great jellies, and they’re famous glazed and sugared up as Christmas treats.
In Birmingham, a kumquat courtyard espalier would be a showpiece on a bare brick wall, and would likely ensure the tree’s survival and the fruit’s maturity. On the Gulf Coast, we use them as foundation shrubs, with a long spring of fragrant white blooms, and months of showy orange fruit in fall and winter.
But is a kumquat really hardy enough for Huntsville? Very nearly. I’ve seen kumquats re-leaf after being zapped by temperatures below 5 F. Fortunately, this one’s small and great to grow in pots, so if you live in the northern half of Alabama, consider dressing it up in a container so you can pull it into the garage or inside on those very few really cold nights.
Asian persimmon– With fruits the size of (and sometimes the color) of a ‘Beefsteak’ tomato, Asian persimmons should be as down-home in Alabama as figs. It may be that Asian persimmons have suffered because they’re confused with our native persimmons. But unlike some of the natives, cultivated Asian persimmon varieties lose their astringency reliably and completely, and you’ll have nothing but a smile on your face when you dig into a soft one.
All varieties have a sweet, syrupy flavor and, when mature, a “slurpy” texture that is typical of many tropical fruits. But I find them as addicting as they are versatile. Asian persimmons are as fine cooked with pork roast as they are blended into a persimmon cheesecake, though I can’t think of anything better than spooning the sweet orange meat of a fresh fruit for an October dessert.
As long as you live in Alabama, there’s a persimmon suited for your yard. Asian persimmons are as tough as they are tropical, and most commonly sold varieties can be grown throughout Alabama. The only caution on hardiness: Some very late maturing varieties, such as ‘Suruga’, may not have time to develop their full flavor if frosts in your area arrive in early November or before. If you live north of Birmingham, make sure your chosen variety matures by November.
Fig– Surely I don’t need to sell you on the virtues of figs, except to say that my Dad and I can’t wait until June and July, when we walk out into the garden in the early morning with our cereal bowls, rake in as many dew-wet figs as the bowl will hold, then eat like kings for breakfast. I once sampled more than 100 varieties of figs in one day, got blissfully sick doing so, and discovered when it was all over that two varieties stood head and shoulders above the rest – ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Celeste’ – the varieties that have been grown in Alabama backyards for generations. Oddly, gardeners in the colder sections of North Alabama often have an easier time enjoying their tropical figs than gardeners in South Alabama. That’s because figs become very large trees in Mobile, and thus are very hard to pick. But the cold of North Alabama maintains figs as easy-to-pick shrubs; Gulf Coast gardeners could learn a thing or two from their less tropical cousins, and simply prune their largest trunks to the ground each year.
Pawpaw– Just because you’re from a tropical family doesn’t mean you have to be tender. The pawpaw is Alabama’s native custard apple, and a good reminder how close to the tropics our native woodlands are. What do you know about pawpaws other than the song you used to sing about picking them up? Not much I bet. We’re still learning about how to get the most of our native pawpaw trees, but a good pawpaw has the creaminess of a banana and a sweet nuttiness that reminds me of coconut. Join us in experimenting with the possibilities of one of Alabama’s great native tropicals.
Passion fruit–While we’re at it, it’s good to remember that there are other delicious wild fruits that are not only native to Alabama, but also distinctly tropical. You know that tropical passion fruit drink? Our wild passion flower can produce really fine fruits that rival those found on its South American relatives.
Roselle– OK. It’s not a tree, not even a perennial. It’s a kind of tropical hibiscus that produces a fruit that might best be described as a tropical cranberry or torrid rhubarb. If you’ve ever had the commercial “Red Zinger” tea, you have a sense of what the flavor is like – bright, tart, sweet and berrylike all at once. It’s an annual tropical plant that thrives in the hot nights of an Alabama summer, and can be grown anywhere okra is grown well (which as near as I can tell is everywhere in Alabama).
Pineapple– Not grown in the ground anywhere in Alabama. But any gardener who hasn’t grown her own pineapple in a pot hasn’t really learned how to have fun gardening. Even in the cold heart of the Appalachians, I’ve seen gardeners nursing along their prickly (but quite attractive) pineapple plants until they finally send up their fruit on a stick. The plants are easy to start – just slice off the top of a grocery store pineapple and “plant” it. Give it good sun, good care and protection from freezing temperatures in winter, and expect a new pineapple fruit in two to three years.
Tropical Fruits For South Alabama (Clanton and South)
Pomegranate– Pomegranates, that sensuously seedy fruit of the Song of Solomon, may seem like a strangely exotic fruit for a place like Alabama. But pomegranates have been grown in parts of Alabama for so long, they now run wild in the fencerows. I’ve sampled tree after tree along a fencerow in central Alabama’s Black Belt, looking for the fruit that had that perfect pomegranate balance of sweetness and tartness. We should be doing more to select and cultivate these old Alabama strains.
Yuzu citrus– One of the hardiest of the genuinely edible citrus, the flavor is complex, perhaps too complex for some tastes. It’s probably better to think of this as a cooking and spice citrus rather than a fresh fruit to nibble on. But even in parts of the world where many other citrus varieties are grown, yuzu holds its own for its distinctive flavor, its versatile uses in the kitchen and the tree’s easy beauty. Yuzu may or may not survive single digit temperatures. So in the colder sections of South Alabama, plant in a protected place. This tree is likely to survive even our worst winters closer to the coast.
Kiwifruit– This odd egg-shaped Chinese fruit has had a checkered history in Alabama, but some researchers at Auburn University believe we now have it figured out. The new golden and smooth-skinned kiwis appear to be better adapted to our central and south Alabama climate. Green or gold, smooth or hairy, kiwifruits have a refreshingly tropical bite, like a cross between a watermelon and a mango.
Tropical Fruits for Coastal Alabama (Within 50 miles of the Coast)
The Gulf of Mexico exerts a huge influence on winter temperatures within 50 miles of the coast. In Mobile and Baldwin counties it’s possible to grow an astonishing variety of tropical fruits. It’s hard to know where to stop, but this list will get you started.
Sweet satsumas do well in Coastal Alabama.
‘Owari’ satsuma– The satsuma or mandarin citrus of Southwest Alabama is legendary, and none is better than the first one imported to Alabama in the 19th century. That’s because its season of maturity in November matches our climate perfectly, drawing on the heat of summer and the long cool nights of fall. Those who haven’t eaten a South Alabama satsuma should hitch a ride to the coast around Thanksgiving. Get a box of satsumas, lay out in the cool sun of the beach, and imagine paradise. Full-grown satsumas are hardy to somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 to 15 F.
Banana– Hey, Martha, did you know that we can have homegrown banana pudding in Alabama? You bet you can, at least if you live near the coast. In my Mobile gardens, I harvested big hands of unusually delicious bananas for 13 years running. Growing the treelike stalks is mindlessly easy. Getting them to produce a fruit requires that you understand a little about bananas and a little about our climate. But in Mobile, it’s actually much easier to raise a big crop of bananas than a decent crop of apples.
We recommend quicker-fruiting and somewhat more cold-tolerant banana varieties such as ‘Rajapuri’, ‘Orinoco’, ‘Ice Cream’ (aka ‘Blue Java’) or ‘Goldfinger’. You’ll want to leave your old stalks standing through the winter, even after the leaves are burned. Banana fanatics (I admit to being one) have got this down to an art but we’ll save complete directions for another day!
This roadside jelly palm produces a wagonload of delicious fruit each summer in Mobile, and the only attention it gets is when I hop off my bicycle to steal a bucket load.
Jelly palm, pindo palm (Butia capitata) – Palms are famous for their fruits (think, for example, dates and coconuts). But the best palm fruit for Alabama is without a doubt the bright orange fruits of the jelly palm. The flavor is a hard-to-describe tropical mixture of tanginess and mango-ness, but I’ve pulled off the side of the road and ate from a tree until my friends had to pull me away. There are many fine old coastal recipes for jelly. But in July and August when they ripen (and few other good fruits are around), my jelly palm fruits never make it as far as the stove.
Loquat, Japanese plum (Eriobotrya japonica) – Japanese loquats are increasingly grown throughout South Alabama as evergreen ornamentals. But in April on the coast the trees are full of golden orange fruits that have the flavor of plums, peaches, mangos and apricots all at once. Loquats flower in fall and mature their fruits over winter so they’re not supposed to produce fruits reliably along the Gulf Coast. But it’s a very rare year without fruit in Mobile. I’m not certain yet, but I think our very late first frosts (as late as December 6 on average in downtown Mobile) allow the fruits to develop hardiness before the toughest cold of winter. This is another great tropical fruit we’re in danger of overlooking.
‘Ponkan’ mandarin – A genuinely tropical mandarin that for reasons not apparent seems to grow and fruit quite well in Mobile. This is perhaps the world’s most popular mandarin, and you’ll understand why when you bite into its honey and spice segments.
Calamondin citrus– An ancient citrus hybrid that is beautiful, tough as nails, and one of the world’s most beloved sour citrus. I use calamondin juice Filipino-style to make one of the world’s most delicious lemonades. Squeeze it in your tea, your pies, across your fish, in your salad. The tree appears to be hardy into the lower teens.
‘Meyer’ lemon– True lemons can’t be grown in the ground in Alabama – they have little or no tolerance for freezing temperatures. But ‘Meyer’ lemon isn’t a true lemon. It’s a cross between an orange and a lemon. That means it has its own distinctive flavor (which is increasingly specified in many recipes), and is considerably hardier than standard lemons. It’s also one of the few citrus grown on its own roots, so it usually springs back fresh and whole from the roots when killed back in a severe winter.
Early Gulf Coast oranges– Before there were the late-maturing navel and early-maturing ‘Washington’ oranges that dominate grocery store shelves, Alabamians looked forward to the candy-like fruits of Gulf Coast oranges such as ‘Hamlin’ (aka ‘Louisiana Sweet’). This orange soaked up the flavor of the cool autumn nights, and was ready to harvest in December before the first heavy frost. It’s time we re-explored this old variety.
Clementine– Sorry to go on so about citrus, but when you can grow so many exceptional citrus in Southwest Alabama, you need to go on about it. Some would describe clementines as the gourmet’s mandarin with spicy overtones in its unusually sweet fruit beneath a fragrant and easy to peel skin. Another mandarin whose quality improves immensely when exposed to our long, hot summers and cool fall nights.
‘Kishu Seedless’ – We found this one in a more recent wave of Japanese citrus immigrations. ‘Kishu’ mandarins have many of the qualities of a high quality satsuma, but in a small, cute package that kids will love as much as I do.
Avocado– Only for something this good would you go to so much trouble – but a lot of us think it may be possible to grow our own avocados in Southwest Alabama. Fortunately, the hardiest avocados (from the mountains of central Mexico) are also among the most delicious and are never found in grocery stores. Unfortunately, they have a poor tolerance for our heavy rainfall and persistent summer humidity. Still, we’ve had enough success we’re not giving up!
Mirliton, chayote, vegetable pear– This famous old Mexican and Caribbean vegetable is enjoying something of a renaissance in Gulf Coast cuisine. Here on the coast we grow this rampant vine mostly as an annual. Because it’s light sensitive, it doesn’t start producing until late fall. But if your season is long enough (and it is in the warmest parts of Alabama), you’ll harvest more mirliton than you’ll know what to do with. Here’s a tip: You can drop all your extra fruits on my porch. We’ve got plenty of great recipes.
Blood orange– Honestly, I don’t care that I can’t easily grow grapefruit and navel oranges in Alabama. I can buy decent versions of these from the grocery store anyway.
But a blood orange is something else. It is certainly the most delicious true orange with its overtones of raspberry and its addictive perfume. The grocery store blood oranges, grown in California, are often a pale imitation of the blood oranges grown along the Mediterranean, where hot summers and cool winters bring out the best colors and flavors.
Interestingly, you can reproduce those Mediterranean conditions if you grow your blood orange in a large enough pot along the Gulf Coast. On those winter nights when temperatures get too low, you can lay your potted citrus on the ground and cover with a tarp, or slide it inside or in a garage for the evening.