T. Eric Nightingale returns this week to report on his recent search for uncommon fruits and vegetables.
The time has finally come to start planning for summer crops. Looking over my seed packets, I feel an unexpected bout of restlessness. I still love my old favorites and always feel a flush of glee when harvesting a richly orange carrot or dirty red beet. This year, however, I feel a distinct urge to grow something different, something new. To be honest, something weird.
If you do an online search for uncommon fruits and vegetables, you will be rewarded with a wealth of options, accompanied by intriguing photos. However, many of these plants are not suited to Napa Valley's climate, require significant space to grow, or are simply unattainable. Many things do grow well in the valley, though, and I have chosen a few unique plants that I intend to try this year.
At the top of my list is dragonfruit. Also called pitahaya, this fruit grows from a thin, angular, climbing cactus. It is quite a sight to see these plants wrapped around a large tree, spanning and hanging from its limbs. For lovers of succulents, it is simply beautiful.
Dragonfruit can be found in sweet and sour varieties. Ovular and covered in spikes, the fruit can be pink, red, yellow or white. The plants themselves are perfect for Napa Valley, as they prefer hot, dry climates. Some are self-pollinating, but others require the presence of a second plant, so be sure to ask at your nursery when you purchase one.
Interestingly, dragonfruit blooms at night, relying on bats and moths for pollination. I recommend trying to sneak out and catch the bloom, if you can, as they are quite attractive. Any time of day pitahaya is a striking, delicious addition to any garden.
I was surprised to learn that there is a species of honeysuckle that produces edible berries. Lonicera caerulea, the honeyberry, produces bluish berries that are often somewhat square in shape. Eaten raw, they have a tart yet sweet flavor and are also good in jams and pies. Although the fruit resembles misshapen blueberries, the honeyberry is actually hardier and easier to care for. Having two varieties of this shrub is a necessity, however, or they will not bear fruit.
Honeyberry produces best in regions with cold winters, and we are just on the edge of its ideal zone. The plant is rumored to be adaptable and I find it intriguing, so I believe it is worth a try.
The vegetable I'm most excited to try this year is the cucamelon, also called "mouse melon" due to its diminutive size. It appears to be a miniaturized watermelon but is actually a type of cucumber. Cucamelons have a tart or sour flavor and are said to be a tasty addition to many recipes. Like other cucumbers, they grow as a vine and will sprawl across your garden if you let them. Interestingly, they grow tuberous roots that can be dug up and stored for replanting the following year.
Another cucumber that has been on my radar for some time is luffa. Plants in the Luffa genus are multipurpose, a trait I always appreciate in my vegetables. The young squash can be harvested and eaten as you would a cucumber. As they mature, these vegetables dry out, often dropping much of their skin and seeds. Left behind, hanging on the vine, is a dense skeleton of fibrous material. Further cleaned of excess material, luffa can be used as a sponge in the kitchen or bath. If you already have all of the luffa you can eat or clean with, the flowers are said to be quite tasty as well.
If you are looking to add some oddball pizzazz to your vegetable garden or have a prankish sense of humor, there is a perfect vegetable for you. Scorpirius muracatus, the prickly caterpillar bean, is possibly the strangest looking legume I've ever seen. These beans are spiral-shaped, thorny and lined with bright purple stripes. They are technically edible but are better used to surprise an unsuspecting dinner guest.
I appreciate fruits and vegetables such as these because they remind me that growing food does not have to be a utilitarian exercise. There is room in the garden for laughter, wonder and sometimes even a little experimentation.
WORKSHOP. UC Master Gardeners of Napa County will hold a workshop on “Add Zest with Citrus!” on Saturday, March 17, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at University of California Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Beautiful, fragrant, and delicious, citrus fits readily into every edible and ornamental landscape. Fresh citrus is a great grab-and-go healthy snack or it can kick up flavor in marinades for barbecues, add a zesty punch to salad dressings and brighten homemade smoothies and cocktails. Come to this workshop to explore the wide variety of citrus, including the unusual, for almost every month of the year. If you are looking to learn how to successfully grow citrus in Napa County, this workshop fits the bill. Online registration (credit card only).
Mail-in/Walk-in registration (cash or check only).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.