Landscaping the Tropical Garden with Fruit Trees

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Smiling girl holding bunch of red rambutan fruit in tropical garden
The bright red ‘hairy’ fruit of the rambutan tree adds a splash of colour to the tropical garden when the tree is fruiting. Image: © Patrick Foto

In the tropics there are so many beautiful trees that are grown for their fruit that the ornamental value of them tends to be overlooked. Fruit trees are usually relegated to out-of-sight corners of the back yard and are rarely grown in the front garden. There is nothing to stop someone landscaping a garden using only fruit trees and fruit producing shrubs. The result can be quite pleasing.

This doesn’t mean planting rows of mangoes and avocados across the front lawn. That type of planting is better reserved for the commercial grower. It means massing them together, just like ornamentals, for a pre-designed effect. By doing this, fruit production will certainly be reduced, but you will be producing so many fruits that this really doesn’t matter.

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For the larger garden, large trees such as the Tamarind (Tamarindus indica), Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), Okari Nut (Terminalia kaernbachii), or the large leaved Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) can provide a dramatic backdrop to plantings, but they do need room to spread.

Ripening jackfruit hanging from a jackfruit tree
Jackfruit trees are attractive with their deep green oval glossy leaves, and the large fruit hanging from the branches adds interest to the landscape. Image: Rajesh Balouria

For the average suburban garden, the choice is still almost endless. Aside from a wide range of well-known tropical fruits, such as rambutans, longans, mangoes, avocados, and guavas, there many lesser-known choices such as the Canistel (Pouteria campechiana), which in some countries is known as the yellow Sapote, or the delightful Bangkok Santol (Sandoricum koetjape).

The Fijian Longan (Pometia pinnata) has spectacular spikes of flowers and is one that I would highly recommend for a garden being planted with just tropical fruits. Its evergreen foliage is decorative too with its dense, glossy, pendulous leaves. This is one that is often recommended just for growing for its ornamental value.

Smaller in size, but excellent as fill-in subjects, are the refreshing Carambola (Averrhoa carambola) – also known as star fruit or five corners in some countries – and its sour-fruited cousin the Bilimbi (Averrhoa bilimbi). In the same category you could include the sweet-fruited lychee (Nephilium litchi) and the sour Star Gooseberry (Phyllanthus acidis).

Whilst the Bilimbi and Star Gooseberry can’t be eaten raw by most people, they do make excellent pickles. And the trees themselves have attractive foliage and bark which makes them well worthwhile planting for their ornamental value.

Yellow carambola fruit on tree against blue sky
The yellow fruit of the carambola tree contrast with its attractive green foliage. Bunches of delicate pink flowers precede fruiting. Image: Bishnu Sarangi

Another tropical fruit tree that is often planted for its ornamental value rather than its fruit is the Spanish Cherry (Mimusops elengii) because the fruit is variable and is sometimes almost inedible. The best fruiting types have a soft avocado-like flesh with a pronounced cheese flavour. Obviously not to everyone’s taste!

For the small garden, one of the most attractive tropical fruit trees that can be planted is the Jaboticaba (Plinia cauliflora). It’s known as the Brazilian grape tree in some countries because the juicy and tasty fruit look like grapes. The fruit grow directly from the trunk of the tree which is attractively mottled, almost like a paperbark. The only downside to the Jaboticaba is that it is very slow growing.

In the shrub category, the Barbados Cherry (Malpighia emarginata) makes a very attractive bush which can reach 2-3 metres in height and two metres across. It’s very fast growing. Flowers are bright pink, and the subsequent fruit are bright red. The small fruit are not only attractive, but they are a nutrient powerhouse and have as much Vitamin C as a much larger orange.

Red and yellow Barbados cherry fruit on green shrub
When the Barbados Cherry shrub is producing, the red and yellow fruit make an eye-catching contrast to the green foliage of the bush. Image: Alongkorn Tengsamut

Barbados Cherry is sometimes confused with Brazilian Cherry (also known as Surinam Cherry) in nurseries. Its botanical name is Eugenia uniflora and it has red fruit (but ribbed, unlike the rounder fruit of the Barbados Cherry) and white flowers, rather than pink flowers. The Brazilian Cherry can grow much larger than the Barbados Cherry but has been used as a hedging shrub in some countries (regular pruning is required to keep it at hedge level).

I don’t recommend the Brazilian Cherry for the home garden because the plant has become a weed in some tropical countries. Its seeds are spread by birds and when established in the wild, it can choke out native vegetation. It has been listed as an invasive species in Bermuda. It is still widely grown in tropical South America where the fruit and leaves are used in traditional medicine.

In sunny spots, Rosella can be used as a fill-in, although it can become straggly later if the spot becomes shaded by larger plants. There are many different varieties of guava that grow as bushes rather than trees, and some tropical varieties of fig can do a good job a filling in smaller spaces as well.

For background foliage, bananas and papaya can be used with great effect. Where screening is required along fences or walls, one of the many delicious passionfruit or granadilla vines can be used. Dragon fruit can be grown over fences too, but they don’t do such a good job of screening.

Golden coconuts ripening on a dwarf palm
The dwarf golden coconut adds colour to the garden all year round once this low-growing palm starts fruiting after a few years. Image: Sadie Alegria

It is possible to design a complete garden around fruit-bearing plants and to have no other types of plants in the garden. If you want to include some palms to give the garden a real tropical look, then the Coconut Palm could be considered if the garden is larger enough and falling fruit will not present a safety issue to passers-by.

Alternatively, the dwarf Golden Coconut can make quite a dramatic landscaping plant in the right place and won’t grow high enough to present a problem with falling fruit. There are also dwarf varieties of Durian available in some countries. Whilst this fruit may not be to everyone’s taste, the dwarf form does make an interesting landscape plant.

When you landscape with a wide selection of tropical fruits, chances are there will be something in fruit or flower all year round. Whilst there may not be a lot of colour in this type of garden at some times of the year, the overall effect can be quite pleasing, and what’s more, you’ll be making far fewer trips to the market for fresh fruit if you can harvest from your own garden.

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