I have been growing tropical fruit trees since the early 1960s and thought I pretty well knew them all, so it came as a shock when a friend offered me a handful of woody, egg-shaped and sized, plum-purple fruit and asked me “what are these?”
At first, I was stumped. They did not resemble any fruit that I knew, and I grabbed a knife to cut one open. My friend laughed and said “no, do this” and he struck the fruit a sharp blow with his hand and the shell broke open to reveal the flesh inside.
As soon as I saw it, I said this must be some kind of longan and a taste confirmed that observation. Typical sweet, slightly rubbery flesh enclosing a single thin-walled seed. The fruit had a bit of the ketone/varnish smell of regular longan, with more than a hint of durian in the mix and left the usual sticky latex after-taste that is displayed by normal longan fruit.
The flesh was drier than longan but provided a pleasant mouth feel and a crisp texture. Definitely worth eating several more fruit to savor the flavor.
My friend told me that in his country it was sometimes called Crystal Longan and, armed with that clue it was easy enough to track the species down on the internet through rare fruit networks and made me wonder why I had never come across this species before.
A day later I was able to visit his property and see the tree in all its glory. It is a magnificent plant. His tree is growing in a suburban backyard and is almost six years old.
Ultimately, according to the literature, the tree can grow to 40 metres in height and can form a substantial part of regrowth rain forest, so it is not a candidate for smaller gardens, although at one site I visited the owner said it was happy growing in a large tub and still produced abundant fruit.
The foliage is most decorative: it’s evergreen, glossy, especially the younger leaves, pendulous and dense. Even if it were not a delicious tropical fruit, this plant is worth growing as a highly decorative garden plant.
As stated above, in its natural environment, this tree can reach up to 40 metres in height, but this supposes deep rich organic soil and rain forest fringe growing conditions.
Seed germinates readily, from fresh fruit. It must be planted immediately from the fruit, or left sitting in a shallow amount of water overnight, to plump the seed up before planting.
Seed will die if left for more than a day or so, or if left in the fruit for more than a couple of days.
Once germinated, seedlings grow quickly, and leaves are a distinct coppery brown color that gradually matures to deep green. Right from the first leaf, foliage displays the distinctive mirror-like glossy sheen.
From personal experience, young plants require some dolomite lime in the soil mix to create a pH neutral potting mix. This requirement will likely continue with plants in the ground if soil is acid.
Flowering begins (at least in Darwin where I am based) when the plant is three years old and flower production is nothing short of amazing, as long dense spikes develop on all terminal branches and twigs.
Typically, the flowers have a slightly unpleasant odor when smelled close up, but this is not noticed in the garden. It would seem that pollination is through multiple vectors, as the blooms attract many different insect species and possibly wind pollination also can occur.
After pollination, fruit set is quickly apparent and young fruit grow rapidly.
The variety that I now have has a distinctive reddish-purple color when ripe, but friends in Kalimantan tell me their most common variety has a green skin, sometimes with a pale pink blush.
Those friends also tell me this is fast becoming a popular “new” fruit in their region and in some areas, old barely productive rambutan orchards are being torn out and replaced with this longan.
The ripe fruit has a limited shelf life and must be consumed within a few days of harvest. Fruit left for a week is unpleasant and rapidly loses its sweetness, so it is definitely one of those “feast or famine” types of crop.
Despite this I would heartily recommend this species as a delicious garden fruit for the tropics and a delightful ornamental garden plant.
Editor’s note: In some other countries Pometia pinnata is also known by the common names Fijian Longan or Island Lychee. Other common names include matoa (Indonesia and Papua New Guinea), malugai (Philippines) and tava (Pacific islands).