For exotic fruit growers, life is the pits

THE REAL DIRT

November 30, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Join us for a tour of Debbie Peterson's leafy Manhattan apartment. Machetes are optional.

This is a coconut tree. Over there is a mango. Congratulate the mango. It recently delivered a handsome 2-pound fruit.

That interesting-looking plant is a loquat. Beside it is a grapefruit tree. It too is about to bear fruit, a rarity among grapefruits grown in captivity.

This beauty is a Brazilian tree grape. It's shaped like a bonsai. Pretty, no?

Fight your way through the flora and you might find Debbie Peterson herself, fussing over a ginberry tree. Never heard of the ginberry?

"People are just dying to get them," says Ms. Peterson. "The fruit tastes like a lousy martini, one with too much vermouth. I got it from Garden of Delights, a nursery in Miami."

Ms. Peterson's place is home to 20 exotic fruit trees, many of which she nurtured from seed.

Who is this woman who has decorated her home in a motif best described as early rain forest? It resembles the Amazon. Only the chain saws are missing.

Ms. Peterson is founder of the Rare Pit & Plant Council, an international organization dedicated to the cultivation and consumption of the world's most unusual fruits.

Each month, in New York City, local members meet to pay sacrificial homage to a piece of rare fruit. It might be a sapote, a cherimoya or a tamarind. The group members discuss, then divide and devour their guest. Then they spit the seed into a pot filled with soil. Then they all drink wine and go home.

It is, from all accounts, a near-mystical experience. And everyone cheers when a seedling appears.

"We're just a bunch of good growers who are being silly with plants," says Ms. Peterson, 58, who started the group 20 years ago. A monthly newsletter, The Pits, offers growing tips and seed exchanges to 700 subscribers in 50 states as well as Germany, Spain, Mexico and Canada. Members include businessmen, poets and priests.

A Texas dermatologist enjoys growing exotic fruits. So does an Italian chemist from Queens, N.Y., and a retired printer in Pittsburgh.

(A year's subscription to The Pits costs $12.50. Write the Rare Pit & Plant Council, 251 W. 11th St., New York, N.Y. 10014.)

Ms. Peterson's personal triumphs include a 7-foot mango tree which, after years of disappointment, finally bore fruit, albeit a single mango.

"Every spring I drag that tree to the New York Flower Show, and every year it comes home pregnant," says Ms. Peterson. "Pollination has something to do with the flowers being jostled around. But this year's mango was the first that ever went full term."

In triumph, Ms. Peterson harvested the fruit and saved it for the group's next meeting. Alas, the mango rotted beforehand. Ms. Peterson preserved it anyway.

"The blackened corpse is in my freezer," she says.

Asian markets provide many rare fruits, says Ms. Peterson, who scours Chinatown regularly in her quest for new specimens. Last month she discovered some hard black seeds called water nuts, an aquatic plant from Southeast Asia.

"They look like the little plastic bats used for party favors on Halloween," she says. She placed the seeds in water. The nuts began to sprout. At last report, the seedlings were 4 inches tall and looking battier than ever.

Most exotic of all is the fruit of the Malaysian durian tree, which has tasty creamy flesh beneath a hard prickly rind. A durian fruit is as big as a football. Unfortunately, it smells like a locker room.

"My husband gave me a durian for Mother's Day," says Ms. Peterson. "He had it flown here from Thailand, but once he smelled it he refused to let it into the house. He said it stank like the sewers of Paris."

Nonetheless, Ms. Peterson shared the rank fruit with the group, which served it ceremoniously before planting the lovely black seeds. They germinated and died.

"We may never get another durian," she says sadly. "They can no longer be shipped fresh on airlines because of the stink."

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