Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham

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This article appeared in the November 2003 issue of Scene magazine

Spring is here. I think.

I spent most of August and September looking longingly from my wallet to my passport and back again... thinking treasonous thoughts about emigrating somewhere warm and dry.

Summer will come or so I'm told. No doubt it will be a weekday and I'll miss it. And like all other corollaries of Murphy's law, whatever can happen to spoil it, will.

Just now I'm not thinking in cosmic terms, but of rather more mundane matters. Like how the brown rot ALWAYS gets the peaches before we do. And if it doesn't, the birds do. And if they don't, the possums do.

But speaking nostalgically of succulent, sweet, summery fruit, my favourite, the Cherimoya actually ripens right now in Spring. Despite the weather! And unlike stone and pip-fruit they thrive on high humidity. They're late this year. Some years they start ripening in July and carry on till Christmas.

Cherimoyas have to be among the most delicious of fruits. The best of them have creamy soft melting flesh with a hint of pear, the tang of pineapple and the zing of ripe raspberries. You could describe it as a fruit salad flavour with a richness and complexity that is hard to match in any other fruit except maybe a good mango.

Despite their equatorial origins, Cherimoyas grow here in Northland very well. They seem perfectly suited to our climate as long as they have good wind shelter and frosts are minimal. They're not too fussy about soil as long as they're not waterlogged. Cherimoyas are lush with foliage all Winter but deciduous very briefly in November. While 'custard apple' is the name often given to Cherimoya, this isn't strictly correct. The custard apple is a hybrid between the cherimoya and the sugar apple, a much more tender tropical fruit.

The custard apple which is grown commercially in Queensland is sweeter, almost sickly sweet and less tangy than the Cherimoya. 'Cherimoya' derives from the local name where they originate high in the Andes of Peru and Ecuador. Despite its wonderful flavour, the fruit and leaves have insecticidal properties which accounts for the almost total lack of bug damage. Great for organic gardeners.

The fruit are big, between half a kilo and two kilos each, up to the size of a rock melon and the brittle branches need propping if the fruit get this big. And they don't get brown rot! They are a very handsome small tree to about four or five metres but need to be pruned hard every year to keep them compact and physically sturdy enough to handle the huge fruit load.

Seedlings grow quickly but don't fruit for five to seven years and fruit quality is likely to be inferior. But grafted trees will bear in the second year with guaranteed deliciousness. Hand pollination is the secret to good fruit production and is easy once you know how. It ensures plentiful, perfect, heart-shaped big fruit.

Cherimoyas are best eaten just as they begin to soften. If they get too ripe they become over-sweet and unpleasantly soggy. They are usually still green-skinned when ripe, but its best to pick them when you can hear the seeds rattle inside if the fruit is shaken. Once picked they ripen in a few days. We usually just cut the fruit into big wedges and eat them like water melon, spitting out the bean-sized seeds... preferably while lying on the lawn with a cold beer close at hand. I once heard cherimoya described as 'Died-and-gone-to-Heaven-fruit'.

A dessert that comes close to Heaven is made by peeling, de-seeding and chopping the fruit into a cocktail glass and squeezing fresh orange juice over the chunks of fruit. Leave it to chill in the fridge for an hour before serving with a glass of Champagne to wash it down.

I've grown at least twenty different grafted varieties of Cherimoya over the years but the best of them is 'Perla', bred by the Austin brothers of Kaitaia, and the flavour is dominated by a definite pineapple tang. Also a must in the orchard is the huge 'White', which has fewer seeds than any of the others and a softer, more pear-like flavour. Its fruits are regularly about 1Kg and can sometimes be twice that size.

Writing about the delights of Cherimoyas has cheered me up.

Spring is OK.

Murphy who?

P/S Anyone interested in the intricacies of cherimoya hand-pollination techniques is most welcome to visit during flowering in January for a demo. A good idea to phone or e-mail first.

(Copyright Russell Fransham 2003)