Fruity, but not thirsty

The plus for having half of your garden die as a result of drought and changes to your watering regime is that you’ve metaphorically sorted the sheep from the goats – a task that has, by the way, become complicated with the introduction of cheep such as dorpas and damaras that may as well be goats. Perhaps this isn’t the right metaphor to use either, given that, when times are tough, the probable result of such a sorting-out is that we are left with the goats, those great despoilers of gardens, vineyards and the barks of trees. Still, we can now plan to replace the plants we’ve lost with recruits from those that have survived, explore the neighbourhood to see what else has endured, join the Cactus & Succulent Society of South Australia ( or revisit the purpose of our gardens.

This last topic – the purpose of our gardens – is complex. Garden express ethics, values and culture as clearly as any art. We’ll explore all that some other time. At this stage (before I dig myself into another topic), let’s just arbitrarily decide that we want a reasonably productive garden and that fruit trees will some of the losses. Firstly let’s make a short list of fruit trees that are likely to manage with limited watering.

Think quinces (modern varieties don’t seem to be as woody as the older ones and stew to a beautiful red), persimmons (gorgeous Autumn foliage and, again, with modern varieties, you get fruits that you can eat before they decompose to a custard without your mouth filling with cotton wool), jujubes (Chinese dates, not those bags of ersatz-flavoured jelly-with-sugar-dusting that lurk in their see-through packets by the check-out), pecans (if you can get hold of any), pomegranates, apricots, and figs.All of these are deciduous and can be ordered now for delivery and planting in winter. A brief exploration the heritage of a few of those might make service to underscore the richness of economic botany’s fabric in science and culture. Quinces are apparently native from Iran through to Greece, and while requiring a low temperature to set fruit, require hot weather for the fruit to ripen. The botanical name, Cydonia oblonga (Rosaceae) comes from Kydonia in Crete, the source of an outstanding variety feted by the Greeks. Quinces, or Golden Apples as they are referred to in classical literature, apparently pre-date applies in cultivation. The perfume of fresh quinces and the colour of quince paste, quince jelly and stewed quinces are compelling enough.

The stunning Autumn colour on a large old persimmon tree at Wittunga Botanic Garden, near the old homestead there, provides a persuasive argument for a fruit with is as commonly grown for ornament as for eating. The ubiquitous astringent persimmon left gardeners focusing on the aesthetics of the tree, the foliage and the fruits. However, a range of non-astringent fruits available today makes an even more compelling case for the persimmon. In Japan, there are some remarkable persimmons, suck as ‘Tsurunoko’ with chocolate-coloured flesh, that are prized for both eating and – if you really cant abide the taste -for the manufacture of traditional Japanese Kakishibu paints.

The botanical name Diospyros kaki (Ebenaceae) derives from Linnaeus’s classical allusion to the ‘the fruit of the Gods‘. Curiously, the common name is supposedly derived from an Algonquian (Eastern American Indian) word that referred to a related species. The name probably attached itself to the ebony-like wood of the American Diospyros virginiana and subsequently made the translation to the Japanese fruit. The persimmon is a native of China and widely cultivated in East Asia. Jujubes are worth discussing for the botanically edgy name – Ziziphus zizyphus (Rhamnaceae). Tautonyms (where the genus and species names are identical) are illegal under the strict laws of botanic nomenclature. The elegant variation of a letter, while probably accidental, has allowed this combination to survive in the botanical literature. However, the name remains an irritant and recent efforts have been made to adopt the earlier Ziziphus jujuba as a more palatable alternative.

Jujubes are native to China through to Syria and have been cultivated in Eastern Europe for thousands of years. The tree has thorny branches and a fruit with an appearance and stone reminiscent of a date and taste closest to an apple. The fruit is excellent fresh or dried. Jujubes are tough, resilient trees.

As I’d spent most of Anzac Day weekend at the outstanding Succulenticon 2008 hosted by the Cactus & Succulent Society of South Australia I decided to deviate from the conference tour at Hillside Herbs to visit the nearby Perry’s Fruit & Nut Nursery at McLaren Vale. As space is limited, and both of these can be grown against a wall, our own choice was a fig and a quince – fine additions to any garden.

They dined on mine and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand on the edge of the sand
The danced by the light of the moon.

Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat is perhaps the best known quince dish!

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 July 2008.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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