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Exotic fruits promise taste of the tropics.

Exotic Fruits Promise Taste of the Tropics

Sweet and juicy, the exotic fruit lychee ranks as one of Asia's most enduring taste treats. Farmers in China have cultivated lychee for more than 2,000 years.

Today, lychee and its relatives rambutan and pulasan are among more than a dozen tasty tropical fruits and nuts that are safeguarded at the ARS tropical crops gene bank in Hawaii. It's a home for pineapple, passionfruit, papaya, breadfruit, macadamia nuts, guava, and carambola or starfruit. Plus, there's a handful of other species most Americans have probably never heard of, like atemoya (also called custard apple), pili nuts, peach palm, and acerola cherry.

Tucked in the Panaewa rainforest about 8 miles outside the town of Hilo, the collection is a living array of seeds, cuttings, plantlets, trees, and vines of wild, rare, and commercially grown tropical plants.

Curator Francis T.P. Zee works closely with entrepreneurial growers in the Hawaiian Islands. These growers are intent on making it as easy to buy a fresh lychee or rambutan in mainland supermarkets as it now is to pick out a fresh pineapple or bunch of bananas.

To make that dream come true, growers need lychee and rambutan trees that will thrive in Hawaii. That's why some of the farmers have made plant-collecting expeditions to southeast Asia and elsewhere--just as Zee has done. They scout village fruit stalls, comb orchards of friendly local farmers, and check row upon row of fruitbearing trees in research groves, looking for promising lychees and other fruits that might appeal to American consumers.

The globe-trotting growers typically share their botanical finds with Zee and exchange tips on nurturing the rare crops.

They want first to fulfill the demand for luscious tropical fruits to market to the state's 1 million residents. But the farmers have also targeted the tourist industry: Even though Hawaii hosts about 1 million travelers every year, few tropical fruits end up on menus visitors are likely to see.

"Most tourists to Hawaii will probably eat some pineapple and perhaps some papaya," says Candace Strong of Kahili and Kilohana Farms on the island of Kauai. "But the majority will likely go home without ever tasting a lychee, rambutan, or other exotic fruit."

"The fruits grown here are typically very high quality," notes Eric Weinert, president of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers, a trade association. "We have a lot of agricultural land here, and we have the potential to make these fruits commonplace at supermarkets in Hawaii and on the mainland."

Lychee has firm, translucent, milky-white flesh that's eaten fresh, canned, preserved, or dried into a chewy, caramel-like snack.

The fruit's skin, usually red, pink, or red with green, is thin, bumpy, and easy to peel. Each walnut-sized lychee contains a seed. In some varieties, seeds are about the size of a marble. Others have flat, shriveled seeds called chicken tongue because that's what they look like.

Lychee is produced in Australia, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, Taiwan, and two American states--Hawaii and Florida. Hawaii's harvest is from numerous backyard trees and some commercial orchards. Florida has from 150 to 200 acres of lychee orchards. Most are young trees, planted within the last 5 years to meet the demand from people who've come to America from southeast Asia. The Florida crop, shipped primarily to East Coast or Midwest markets, is worth almost $2 million a year.

Changes in tropical farming in Hawaii and Florida have nudged more growers into taking a new look at raising lychee and other exotics. Sugarcane's decline in both states has freed up canefields for other crops. Too, U.S. consumers have shown a new willingness to try exotic fruits and vegetables. And growers elsewhere--most notably in Australia--have tried planting exotics with remarkable success in the last 10 years.

Zee's expedition to Taiwan earlier this year netted 12 new types of lychee. The gift of a Taiwanese experiment station horticulturist, Chung-Ruey Yen, the plants are now growing at the gene bank.

The botanical bounty includes what Zee describes as "the king of lychee varieties. It's very sweet with a small seed," he says. "This is the best lychee variety in China. But we've never been able to produce a good crop from it in Hawaii. The tree grows well but doesn't produce fruit consistently."

Zee's hoping for better luck with the new material. "It may be a clone of lychees originally collected a long time ago on mainland China," he says.

Lychee's relative, the golf-ball-size rambutan, sports long, soft, bizarre-looking spines. Rambutan may be red to yellow, with red, green, or yellow spines. It "looks like a Christmas tree ornament," says grower Candace Strong. "Rambutan is so attractive that when you see one, you just want to grab it and eat it."

Inside, rambutan's flesh is "pearly-white, sweet, crunchy, and juicy," says curator Zee. "You take the skin off by holding the fruit at the top and the bottom and giving it a quick twist."

Susan Hamilton of Hula Brothers farm in Kurtistown, Hawaii, vouches for rambutan's pleasing flavor. "You don't need an acquired taste to enjoy rambutan," she says. "It's not like a durian," a tropical fruit with so strong an odor that some hotels forbid guests from bringing it inside. "Durian," Hamilton says, "is the kind of fruit that you either love or hate."

Native to Malaysia, rambutan can be eaten fresh, canned, stewed, or in jams and jellies. Thailand, one of the world's largest exporters of canned rambutan, sells about $2.5 million worth of the fruit each year, says Zee.

Rambutan specimens that Zee brought back from his plant-collecting foray to Thailand earlier this year include seeds from the fruit of a 50-year-old tree--a variety of rambutan that no one grows anymore, Zee says. So why put them in the gene bank? "Those trees might have a characteristic, like vigor or disease resistance, that we'll need someday," he says.

Zee also took home seeds of another species, a rambutan relative called Nephelium hyperleucum. He found it growing just outside a Buddhist wat, or temple. At that wat, and some others scattered throughout Thailand, the grounds are kept as natural as possible. Inadvertently, the sites have become sanctuaries for native plants.

"At one temple, I saw huge trees growing in a courtyard, sheltering monks and pilgrims," Zee says. "I knew then that those trees and others would be safe as long as there are temples.

"This was the first time on the collecting trip that I didn't have a sense of despair about trying to rescue vanishing species of plants."

At roadside stands in Hawaii, rambutan sells for about $6 a pound. The ideal rambutan for that state would bear fruit in the winter, the off-season for Thailand's orchards. A few varieties at the gene bank might fit that niche, he says.

Other promising rambutans include wild trees that produce unusually dark, purplish-red fruit. Zee and colleagues Robert J. Knight and Raymond J. Schnell of the ARS Subtropical Horticultural Research Laboratory in Miami brought back specimens of the uniquely colored rambutans from Borneo last year.

Zee says the fruits are likely to have more acid and less sugar than typical rambutan varieties. That sweet-tart balance gives the wild fruit "a pleasantly acidic flavor, probably closer to that of fruits Westerners are used to eating," he adds. The trait might boost rambutan's appeal if the fresh fruit were introduced to mainland U.S. markets.

Another prize from that expedition was seed from a giant rambutan. It yields jumbo fruit about twice as large as ordinary rambutans.

Right now, neither fresh lychee nor fresh rambutan can be shipped to the mainland from Hawaii. That's because both fruits are host to tropical fruit flies that other states and nations want to keep out.

No Hitchhiking Insects

How can Hawaii's fruits be protected from fruit flies that want a free ride to the mainland?

Dipping lychee in a hot bath, or chilling it, are two promising tactics for destroying any fruit flies that might be hiding inside the fruit, says research entomologist John W. Armstrong. He works at the Tropical Fruit and Vegetable Research Laboratory next door to the gene bank.

A technique to make sure that exported lychee is free of tropical fruit flies might be ready by late next year, Armstrong estimates. Finding a way to zap fruit flies in rambutan, however, will probably take longer. Techniques that have worked well with other crops, says Armstrong, so far haven't succeeded for rambutan.

Meanwhile, mainland produce businesses like Frieda's Finest, the largest broker of specialty produce in the United States, sell lychee but can't keep up with the current demand. Similarly, the company gets requests for fresh rambutan but they can't fill them.

Frieda's buys fresh lychee from both Florida and Mexico, selling as much as 100,000 pounds each year, according to Bess Petlak at the company's Los Angeles, California, headquarters.

Says Petlak, "We get calls all the time for fresh rambutan, but we can't supply it because of the fruit fly problem. When the researchers get the bugs worked out, we're ready to sell it."

PHOTO : Curator Francis Zee inspects papaya trees.

PHOTO : Pineapple growing in Hawaii.

PHOTO : Hold the fruit at the top and bottom, give it a quick twist to remove the skin, and the sweet, crunchy rambutan is ready to eat.

PHOTO : Lychee, a sweet tropical fruit, is a good source of vitamin C.

PHOTO : Horticulturist Robert Knight with carambola fruit. Fruit in foreground has been cross-sectioned to show the distinctive star shape.
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Title Annotation:Agricultural Research Service's tropical crops gene bank in Hawaii
Author:Wood, Marcia
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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