Tree of the moment: Feijoa

It seemed like everywhere I went during last month’s BOP Garden and Art Festival there was a feijoa flower winking at me, many of the shrubby trees being grown as hedges.

Feijoa flowers in New Zealand are mostly bird pollinated. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Acca sellowiana is native to the highlands of southern Brazil, eastern Paraguay, Uruguay, northern Argentina, and Colombia, but grows very well in much of New Zealand. Kiwis will spot the family relationship feijoas have with our native pohutukawa, thanks to the flowers and leaves being so similar. Both are members of the Myrtaceae (myrtle) family.

Originally named Feijoa sellowiana, German botanist Ernst Berger was honouring João da Silva Feijó, a Portuguese naturalist, and Friedrich Sellow, the German who first collected specimens of feijoa in southern Brazil.

A New Zealand newspaper gardening column of 1910 notes that the plant, introduced into Europe in the late 19th century, should grow well in Auckland. By 1925 Hayward Wright, who was a kiwifruit pioneer in New Zealand, was discussing the plant, and offering to show samples, at an Auckland Acclimatisation Society meeting, while in 1929, a newspaper correspondent was being advised that trees could be purchased locally.

A 1987 paper, available online, reports that an “Auckland nurseryman” (no name mentioned) introduced three cultivars from Australia in about 1908. Kate Evans, who is writing a book about feijoas, says in a NZ Geographic article that one account claims they were imported from Australia in about 1908 by our unnamed Auckland nurseryman; another gives the credit to Alexander Allison of Whanganui (another plank in the kiwifruit story). Allison’s property, Kate says, still boasts an enormous feijoa tree that could easily be more than a century old.

All of the interior of a feijoa is eaten, seeds, jelly and flesh. Image: Wikipedia

Known as pineapple guava or guavasteen countries, the fruit seems to divide people. I’m definitely not a fan, disliking the smell and the texture of the flesh. The Vege Grower made some feijoa chutney last year and, when combined with other foods, I’m finding I’m not disliking it, so maybe that’s the permanent solution to the produce of our dwarf Feijoa Bambina. Here are some feijoa recipes from a fan in southern California, and here are recipes from New Zealand.

Writing in the NZ Herald in 1934, Hayward Wright said of the feijoa: “It is bushy and symmetrical in shape, and in the spring is a mass of blossom, a fact which should win a place for it in every garden as a shrub, to say nothing of the fruit, which is destined to become one of the very best for jams or jellies.”

Depending on the variety you choose (here’s the Incredible Edibles range), you could plant for an almost year-round supply of fruit.

Layered hedging – from horopito and star jasmine at the front to the acacia shelterbelt at the back, and bounded on the right by a long feijoa hedge. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The 2019 edition of Fresh Facts (Horticulture NZ), reveals that for the 2018-19 season there were 225 commercial growers of feijoas in New Zealand producing 1,200 tonnes of fruit. The domestic market was worth $4 million and the export market $200,000. The trees have a productive life of about 30-40 years.

Flowering now

This post has the subtitle, ‘or has been recently’ as I haven’t posted any photos from my garden for a while.

I finally got a Leonotis leonurus last year, after admiring it for some time, particularly the orange-flowered variety (it also comes with white flowers). Native to South Africa, this perennial should be cut back in winter. Mine’s a year old and already quite large for its spot (although striking) so I’ll look at dividing it in autumn and having two!

Leonotis leonurus is native to South Africa. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The flowers, which grow like pom-poms on stems as tall as 1.8m, produce copious nectar that attracts birds, bees and butterflies. Its common names include lion’s ear (for the leaves) and wild dagga.

The excellent PlantZ Africa website (also linked to above) says that in its native setting the plant is primarily pollinated by birds and is an example of co-evolution – the flowers contain nectar to attract birds but have also developed as a tubular shape to accommodate the curved beaks of the nectar-feeding birds. The website also goes into the plant’s medicinal properties, both as folk remedies and some modern testing that’s been done.

Leonotis leonurus, the website says, is mentioned in European gardening literature as early as 1673.

Mrs Cholmondeley clematis (her name is pronounced Chumley) is putting on her best show yet. I grow her in a pot under a climbing frame, partly because I’ve never been able to decide where to plant her permanently and then because I rather liked the arrangement. Read more about her here. I agree that she’s an early, but also an extended bloomer. Another website notes that her registration was in 1873 so she’s been popular for a while.

Mrs Cholmondeley. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Here are some clematis notes from the wonderful Monty Don (northern hemisphere seasons). Given that I’ve killed several (expensive) clematis over the years I always approach pruning with caution!

Blush Babe’s second flowering. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Intrigued to see that our Blush Babe apple is flowering again! Some fruit has set from the first flowering, which was relatively meagre and during poor weather, so I’m pleased the tree is having another try, but I’m not sure how common a second blossoming is. Blush Babe is a dwarf (to 2m) mop-top tree. Read more about growing apples in small spaces.

Now I know Feijoa Bambina is bird pollinated I promise I won’t shoo the blackbirds off it! (Live and learn, live and learn.) Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read more about Feijoa Bambina, another dwarf plant.

Closing with another flower in the orange range – Rosa Charles Austin. I’ve had my bush for 20 years or more and it’s so reliable (at least 4 flowerings if you keep the water up) and stays healthy in our hot and humid summers and wet winters. Multiple flowers on one stem – reasonably orange in the bud and fading to a pale apricot in full bloom – and a light, pleasant fragrance.

Rosa Charles Austin. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The plant is named for the father of the renowned rose breeder David Austin. It was released in 1973 but, I read, has been ‘retired’ in favour of newer, better varieties. I don’t think I could get much better than this. Read more about Austin roses.

Incredible Edibles

Have a hankering to harvest your own tea? Create your own coffee? Or maybe you’d like to make home-made cranberry juice.

The Incredible Edibles range, which is a trademarked brand, forms part of Tharfield Nursery near Katikati, has developed a reputation for offering gardeners cropping plants that are a bit different – and on Thursday, March 21 members of the public are being offered a chance to tour the stock garden (see the Events page for details; bookings essential).

Launched in 2000 by Fiona and Andrew Boylan, the Incredible Edibles range is widely stocked in garden centres throughout New Zealand and two show gardens at the Ellerslie International Flower Show have won gold (2006) and silver distinction (2010).

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Andrew and Fiona Boylan (front) in their award-winning edible garden at Ellerslie in 2010. Behind them, from left, Caroline Elliott (nurserywoman), Sandi MacRae (designer) and Lindsay Robinson (builder). The garden was gifted to a children’s home. Photo: Sandra Simpson

As well as commercial production on the 5.2ha site, Fiona and Andrew also maintain a large stock garden filled with plants for observation. And even if they turn out not to be suitable for further development, plants are often kept for their curiosity value – probably the fate of the liquorice bushes, although Fiona says she hasn’t made up her mind yet.

“The root is actually the part which gets processed into what we eat so that’s probably not viable for home gardeners. But plenty of visitors are curious to see them.”

Carob is another that’s being watched – the trees need male and female plants to create the seed pods which lead to the chocolate substitute.

Fiona grows coffee as a pot plant in her office and says it should be a house plant in most parts of New Zealand as it’s simply too cold for it outside, but even indoors you’ll still get beans to crop.

However, tea, a member of the camellia family, is a good hedging plant and the Incredible Edibles website gives instruction on how to pick and dry the leaves to make your own cuppa – 1kg of green tip leaves will yield about 200g of dry tea leaves.

‘Everyone’s thinking about their health, and growing food instead of buying it,” Fiona says. “Despite our grandparents having extensive gardening knowledge, people are having to learn to grow their own food plants again and we try and help with any information we can.

“In my family garden in Thames we had 50 fruit trees and a big vege garden so it’s a bit ironic that I ended up doing this. We get a lot of emails with questions on how to grow, where to grow and what to do with fruit so we put recipes on the website and have led the way in the amount of information we put on our plant labels.”

The couple sell blueberries, feijoas and tamarillos to commercial growers as well as home gardeners, and regularly work with Plant & Food Research. Partnership plants include Tamarillo Tango, a lower-acid fruit, Blueberry Muffin and the bramble Thornless Jewel.

“I like to think of people planting a grazing garden,” Fiona says. “So as the kids go to school they can pick, say, a guava and go off munching it.”

As well as old-fashioned plants like gooseberries, currants (“we can’t grow enough of them”), brambles (which can be grown on a frame in a large pot), bay trees and rhubarb (“there’s an amazing market for it”), Incredible Edibles also specialises in the unusual.

The Japanese raisin tree (Hovenia dulcis). Photo: Sandra Simpson

The tiny, edible seeds of the Japanese raisin tree fall when ripe and should be picked up, have the seeds snapped off the stem, and put in a paper bag in the hot-water cupboard for a fortnight. When eaten they taste like raisins, hence the name.

The name of the ice-cream bean (Inga edulis) also describes its taste – the edible beans are cocooned in a fluffy white substance with a sweet taste.

Other exotic offerings include sugar cane, red banana passionfruit and cherimoya (custard apple), while recent releases include the dwarf Feijoa Bambina, Strawberry Sundae and dwarf apple Teacher’s Pet.

“When we look at whether to market plants we look at the taste, the size of the plant and ease of growing,” Fiona says.

“We’re pretty restricted by biosanitary regulations and quarantine so don’t bring anything in – all that we have is already available in the country.”

The pods of the ice-cream bean tree (Inga edulis) contain an edible white pulp. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The couple are occasionally approached by home gardeners who have something to share and which sometimes results in a new line.

“Someone bought in the naranjilla from their own garden. It’s a great ornamental plant with its big, hairy purple leaves and has strawberry-scented fruit that is used extensively for juice in South America,” Fiona says.

“We’ve also developed the weeping Cipo orange from someone’s garden.

“People who have older gardens probably have some really interesting things tucked away, things pioneers may have brought with them, although identifying varieties can often be difficult, especially with things like figs and feijoas.

“The only way everyone can get ahead is if we all share.”

This article originally appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. It has been altered slightly for relevance and updated.