Tropical Gardening: Add food- and vitamin-producing plants to your garden

  • Courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE This giant Dendrocalamus bamboo might not be a tree, but it acts like one — it reaches 100 feet or more and has monster edible shoots.

When the first people arrived in Hawaii, there was not much in the forests that was edible. They brought with them the coconut, Mountain Apple, breadfruit, banana, sugar cane, bamboo, sweet potato, kalo, kukui and many medicinal plants.

Now because of human activity, we find all kinds of fruit trees growing wild, creating a new kind of Hawaiian forest complex in just a few hundred years. To this day we continue to add to the tropical fruit tree mix by what we plant in our gardens.


If you are looking for an exotic tree that is just right for a small yard and one that grows easily, takes very little care and produces fruit, then get acquainted with the star fruit.

The carambola, also known as the star fruit or Averrhoa carambola, is a tropical Malaysian fruit that should be more widely grown in Hawaii. The tree was introduced into the islands about 100 years ago. It was probably brought from the Old World tropics.

One reason we don’t see it more is that variability exists in seedling populations. Fruits of many seedlings are sour, but nurseries are beginning to carry grafted plants rather than seedlings because of the superior fruit.

The star fruit makes a small tree and will grow to a height of only about 20 feet. The habit of growth is such that the tree can be easily trained to various shapes. If left unpruned, it develops a rounded, open crown.

The tree is wind resistant, often withstanding winds of hurricane force with little damage.

Carambola trees should be planted in a well-drained location since they are damaged by flooding. It will tolerate dry conditions, but growth and fruiting are reduced by extended periods of drought.

The tree does best at lower elevations since it is of tropical origin. In most areas of the state, it does not thrive above 2,000 feet.

Plant the young tree in a sunny location. After it is established, look for loads of fruit.

Maintenance is easy. Fertilize with a 1-1-1 ratio fertilizer three or four times a year. Fertilizer should be spread under the canopy and extend 2-3 feet beyond.

Insect pests and diseases are usually not a problem. The root system is not aggressive, so the tree can be planted near the house, patio or driveway.

The fruit produced can be eaten fresh, used in drinks or salads or made into preserves or jellies.

Another interesting fruit is the West Indian Barbados cherry. The Barbados cherry is not a cherry but a member of the Malpighia family. It bears the highest known Vitamin C content fruit. As a comparison, oranges average 49 milligrams of Vitamin C per 100 grams of edible fruit (100 grams is about 3 1/2 ounces). The Barbados cherry, picked as they are turning green to red, average more than 4,000 units per 100 grams.

The tartly-flavored, three-lobed fruit can be eaten fresh or used in jellies or preserves.

Seldom growing more than 12 feet, its small dark green leaves are contrasted by lighter undersides. The white and delicate pink flowers appear singly or in clusters in the leaf axils.

Easy-to-grow seedlings produce fruit between the first and third year, while grafted trees come into production the first year after planting. Of bing cherry size, the fruit ripens gradually.

Highly disease resistant, it requires only routine garden care.

Those vitamin pills on your shelf, besides being pretty expensive items, are not nearly as palatable and eye appealing as fresh fruit, especially when it is grown in your own backyard.

Take Vitamin A for instance. One medium size mango can contain 8,380 IU’s (international units), while 5,000 IU’s per day are listed as adequate.

A few other dooryard fruits that are high in Vitamin A are papaya, Japanese persimmon, avocado, banana, orange, tangerine and Suriname cherry.

Some other tropical fruits famous for their contribution of vitamins are grapefruit, guava, mangosteen, soursop, sapote, cherimoya, lychee, longan, breadfruit and jackfruit. If you have the taste for it, the durian is becoming available at some nurseries.

Other trees such as cinnamon, allspice and cloves can add to your edible garden. Although not a tree, many bamboo species also supply edible shoots, but stick to the clumping types such as Nastus elatus or Dendrocalamus species if you have plenty of room.


For sources of these and other tropical fruits, contact your local nurseries or the UH Master Gardener Helpline at 322-4893 in Kona or 981-5199 in Hilo. They can connect you with Ken Love of the Tropical Fruit Growers Association. His email address is

Tropical fruit grower Brian Lievens of Kona also is a great resource on the subject and can be reached by calling 326-2122.

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