Why buy what you can grow freely and continuously at home? South Florida’s subtropical climate offers the ideal environment to raise these unique and tasty fruits right from your backyard. By becoming the caretaker for these fruit trees, it is guaranteed that nothing harmful can be introduced during their development – you are in control of the entire growing process. Peace of mind with a piece of fruit!
South Florida falls into the hardiness zones of 10 and 11, meaning certain plants thrive in this region of the state and can only be grown here, with few exceptions – some of these plants could potentially grow a bit closer to the southern tip of Central Florida. With that in mind, let us look at some fruit trees that you could grow comfortably in South Florida.
1. Banana (Dwarf Cavendish)
Harvest Season: Year-round
Bananas are one of the most popular fruits that comes to mind – possibly due to the infectious children’s song about Apples and Bananas taking root in our mind from a young age. Regardless, several types of bananas can be grown in Florida, but the Dwarf Cavendish, or Musa Acuminata, is the most reliable type for homeowners to cultivate due to its disease resistance and cold-weather tolerance. Going outside in South Florida may feel like walking through a humid oven, but sometimes there is a break at the end of the year, and some plants cannot tolerate temperatures dropping too low.
Banana trees are actually a giant herbaceous plant (an herb), but for simplicities sake, I will refer to Them as trees.
Typically, Bananas will fruit 9 to 12 months after planting. Plant during the Spring if you have good irrigation or wait till the rainy month of June. They need full sun and space away from other plants – at least 10 feet, preferably to provide some wind protection as light wind can damage leaves and stronger winds could topple the entire tree. For the best continuous fruit production, fertilize during the first 3 to 4 months of development as this crucial period will determine its future fruit production.
The plant needs about 5 inches of water a month – keep an eye on weather conditions and how much rain pours during the rainy months, otherwise water them with about an inch weekly. Banana trees are NOT flood resistant. They will die quickly and thus should not be planted in flood-prone areas. Harvest when the bananas are plump but not completely yellow – about a week or two before they would ripen on the while growing on the plant. Try to keep harvested banana bunches in a cool, shady place to ripen for a better flavor!
2. Cherimoya (Annona Cherimola)
Harvest Season: Winter through Spring
Also known as the custard apple or, according to Mark Twain, “the most delicious fruit known to man.” The cherimoya has been described as tasting like the combination of bananas, mangoes, strawberries, pineapples, papayas, and coconuts! When ripe, the contents can be scooped out like its namesake, custard! Despite the odd appearance of the cherimoya’s skin, it is also safe to eat, but avoid consuming the seeds – they are toxic, especially if crushed.
Instead of tossing them in the trash, try placing the seeds in a bowl of water and press down till they sink. After a few days, send any floating seeds to the trash can and bury the remaining seeds in 6 inches of a pot of soil. After a few weeks, you can transplant them to your yard to begin the 3 to 5-year process of growing your Cherimoya tree from seedlings. For this reason, unless you can wait that long for fresh cherimoya, it’s best to buy a tree and transplant it to your yard from April to June.
The tree needs full sun, and from April to November, water every two weeks ensuring the soil stays moist. Pay attention to the weather as the Cherimoya tree cannot tolerate overwatering. Apply fertilizer four times a year – 1 pound the first year and one additional pound each year stopping at 5 pounds a year.
Experts are still unsure what insect pollinates the flowers as bees are too large to reach the female flowers and other insects have not been observed collecting pollen. Thus, Growers must rely on the wind to pollinate the flowers or take direct intervention and hand-pollinate the flowers by hand with a small brush.
Harvest the fruit when the Cherimoya looks like the picture above. If you want to go a bit further, perfectly ripened Cherimoya are almost entirely brown but can be a bit more difficult to determine whether they are ripe or spoiled. Squeeze the browned Cherimoya, and if you feel some pressure push back, then it is fine.
3. Dragon Fruit (Pitaya/Pitahaya)
Harvest Season: Early Summer through Mid-fall
Behold! What may appear to be scaly-pink dragon eggs is actually fruit containing sweet and crunchy flesh – described as a cross between a kiwi and a pear. When referring to Dragon Fruit, the name is commonly attributed to the pink-skin with white flesh Pitaya Blanca or Hylocereus Undatus. Dragon Fruit belongs to the cactus family and is a climbing plant. To properly grow, you will need to provide a structure to support its climb – the cactus that bares these vitamins and mineral-rich fruit can grow up to 20 feet high! You may want to prune some of the branches to avoid growing a giant cactus.
The cactus can be grown directly from the seeds of the Dragon Fruit, but it could take years – it is easy to grow but requires time. The best option for those who do not want to wait that long to eat is to buy a grown cactus and simply transplant it to your yard. The plant requires full sun and grows best in loamy soil – that which contains a mix of clay, sand, and silt.
Like a cactus, you need to water it carefully. Only water if the top of the soil is dry and only to the point where the soil is moist – do not let it sit in water. To ensure survivability, plant it in well-irrigated soil and an area of your yard not prone to flooding.
Harvest the Dragon Fruit about a month after the flowers on the tree bloom. However, an easier way to determine if it’s time to pick them would be to examine the leafy parts on the fruit – ripe Dragon Fruit will have brown, withered leaf tips!
Harvest Season: May through early July
A member of the Soapberry family, the Lychee has a hard, dimpled red shell with soft and sweet white flesh that has a light floral taste of grape, water, melon, or pear. The fruit is often used in alcoholic drinks such as wine and various cocktails. Its high sweetness also makes it an ingredient in candy and ice cream. DO NOT grow a Lychee tree from a seed – it will take 10 to 25 years for the tree to mature and produce fruit. Instead, buy a young tree from a nursery and transplant it into your yard. In South Florida, the Brewster variant is used commercially, but it may be a bit too large for your yard. Instead, look for the following variants: Bengal, Hak Ip, Sweet Heart, Kwai Mai Pink, and Mauritius.
The young tree will require full Sun but if the Lychee tree is not used to too much light, slowly acclimate it to the Sun as sudden exposure could overwhelm it. Overall, the young tree is sensitive to light frost and overwatering but does perfectly well in native Florida soil. The subtropical environment of South Florida is ideal for its development – the young tree needs a warm, humid summer and a slight chill during the winter.
Plant the Lychee tree on a mound to avoid destruction from flooding and water 2 to 3 times a week for the first few weeks and then water regularly when the soil is dry. If you live in the Western portion of South Florida, regular watering is vital to reduce the build-up of salt in the ground – the Lychee tree is not salt tolerant. When the Lychee fruit turns from green to bright red, then they are ripe, and it is time to harvest and consume! Once removed, the fruit has a shelf life of about five weeks when refrigerated.
Harvest Season: Year-round, peak harvest in Summer
Mangos are an aromatic tropical fruit that blankets coastal areas with its sweet perfume. Used in drinks and treats and readily consumed on the beach, tropical paradise is all that comes to mind when picturing a Mango. Fortunately for you, Florida is the largest producer of Mangos in the United States and is home to 16 varieties seeking to take root in your backyard. Typically, they are grown along the Eastern and Southern coasts of South Florida, and the South shore of Lake Okeechobee. Due to the many different variants of Mango, they can be harvested year-round.
For your backyard, the Carrie Mango is an excellent place to begin – extremely sweet with silky flesh and requires the least amount of care. Harvest starts in early Summer, allowing you to kick-off your South Florida summer the correct way with a tropical icon. The mango tree can take many years to grow from a seed to a mature specimen, and I advise purchasing a young tree from a nursery and transplant it into your yard.
The tree needs full sun and proper irrigation as standing water will damage it and affect fruit production in the best-case scenario. Ideally, plant it on a 7-foot mound away from other plants and structures. IMPORTANT – keep the tree away from power lines. Mango trees can grow up to 130 feet tall. It may not reach that height exactly, but residential power lines are 12 to 15-feet high.
A mango tree will produce fruit after the first year but remove the fruits as they appear – this will allow the tree to dedicate energy to grow strong roots that could resist the inevitable hurricane or tropical storm. The fruit can weigh up to five pounds, and many of them may not mature all at once, so no need to pick every single one during harvest. The easiest way to determine if they are ready to pick is to tug on the Mango lightly – if it comes off, then it’s ready! Afterward, wait a few days for it to ripen.
6. Mamey Sapote
Harvest Season: May through July
The Mamey Sapote, or the Pouterra Sapota, is an odd addition to this pantheon of South Florida fruits. It has been noted to taste like a combination of – brace yourself – pumpkin, sweet potato, honey, prune, peach, apricot, cantaloupe, cherry, almond, vanilla, and chocolate… Moving on, contained within the brown sandpaper-like fuzzy skin, when ripe, is sweet and creamy vibrant salmon-colored flesh.
Seven years will pass before the Mamey Sapote tree can produce fruit when grown from a seed, while grafted trees can produce fruit after 3 to 5 years. A mature tree can become 40-feet tall, so plant it 20 to 30-feet away from other plants and structures, and especially power lines. If you happen to live in Miami-Dade County, you may need to contact a contractor to dig a spot for your tree. The Mamey Sapote needs to be planted in a 4-foot hole, and most of the land in this region is shallow with calcareous bedrock underneath.
Mamey Sapote requires full sun – so much so that shade from structures and other plants will cause the tree not to grow properly or produce fruit. When first starting, you need to water the young tree every other day and then 2-3 times a week when mature. However, keep an eye out for rain as it may do your job for you and increase the chance of overwatering, causing the roots to rot. To protect the tree from flood damage, plant it on a 7-foot mound.
Keep in mind that the Mamey Sapote tree has a sensitive trunk – keep a grass-free 4-foot radius around the trunk and do not use grass fertilizer near it. Be careful not to hit the base with any mechanical equipment such as a lawnmower as it will weaken the tree.
A common trick to determine if the Mamey Sapote is ready to harvest is to make a small scratch to remove the outer layer of skin. If the scratch turns from green to salmon color, then it’s ready to come inside!
7. White Sapote
Harvest Season: Spring through Summer
To round off this list, I end with the White Sapote. It is different from the Mamey Sapote in that its taste can be singled down to having the flavor of banana and peach with a slight bitterness. If you cannot tolerate any bitter flavors, find and grow the Dade variant. Often, you can find White Sapote blended into milkshakes and dessert type foods because of its smooth and creamy texture. Another big difference from the Mamey Sapote is that the outside of this fruit is green-yellow becoming golden-yellow as it ripens, and the White Sapote’s flesh is, of course, white!
Growing the White Sapote tree is an identical endeavor to raising a Mamey Sapote tree, differing in a few areas. If the tree is younger than 3, water once a week during prolonged dry periods – typically a week with little to no rain. Otherwise, the tree does not need regular watering as the typical Floridian weather will take over for you. However, if there are prolonged dry periods when the tree is older than 3, return to watering it once a week.
The fruit is ready to harvest when the skin turns yellow and will easily come off the branch. Expect the surface to be very delicate, bruising at the slightest impact. Bruised White Sapote will taste bitter. If you manage to harvest the fruit carefully, it will last a bit over a week when refrigerated.