Real fruit - from an indoor tree

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February 03, 2007|By Beth Botts | Beth Botts,Chicago Tribune

Imagine brewing a cup of coffee from beans you grew yourself. Or making a pitcher of lemonade from your own lemons. Believe it or not, it's possible - not easy, but possible.

Though most indoor plants are enjoyed for their foliage and some for their flowers, some fruit trees can be grown in containers and, if conditions are right, may eventually produce fruit. All fruiting plants will need lots of sunlight. "You want it in the brightest window possible," says Byron Martin, third-generation owner and president of Logee's, a Connecticut mail-order company that specializes in unusual tropical plants. Full sun, for fruit tree purposes, is about 11 hours a day; in winter that might take supplemental lighting.

A plant needs a whole lot of energy to generate flowers and turn them into bananas or lemons. Without enough sunlight, you may get healthy leaves but no fruit.

These are tropical plants and must spend the winter indoors. Nearly all will benefit from spending the summer outside, though. Just make sure they are safely indoors before frost is more than a premonition.

Don't overheat them, though; Martin says most prefer indoor temperatures in the 60s. Just don't let them get below 50.

Here are some plants that might, with care, produce at least a token amount of fruit in a home:

Citrus: Citrus trees grow best "slightly underpotted," Martin says, so their roots really fill the container. He recommends breathable terra cotta. Make sure the top of the soil dries out between waterings. During the active growing season, from March through September, they should be outdoors, with plenty of water and fertilizer; bring them indoors in the winter and ease off on both so they slow down, staying healthy but not growing much.

Martin says the trees will fruit every other year. Key limes (Citrus aurantifolia "Key lime") are best known for pies; other citrus fruits to consider are kumquats, "Meyer" or "Ponderosa" lemons, dwarf grapefruit and blood oranges.

Ladyfinger bananas (Musa "dwarf lady finger"): Banana plants are fairly common as houseplants, but most would have to get huge - 10 feet or more - before they had a chance of fruiting.

Logee's sells a variety, "ladyfinger," that thrives in a pot and "reliably throws fruit down" at about 5 feet high, Martin says. The fruits are smaller than a supermarket banana but just as sweet. Bear in mind that after a banana plant fruits, it dies back to the ground and starts over.

African miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum): This is a small shrub that fruits off and on year-round and has bright red berries. The berries are a real oddity with a startling effect, Martin says: For about a half-hour after you eat them, anything else - even a lemon or sauerkraut - seems astonishingly sweet. The shrub needs very acid soil, such as a mixture of peat moss and perlite.

Strawberry guava (Psidium littorale): This 3- or 4-foot tree is a better container plant than the huge ones that grow guavas for the supermarket. The plant flowers over the summer, while it's on the patio, and has its fragrant, tasty fruits in the fall.

Coffee (Coffea arabica): Its large, glossy leaves alone make this a handsome indoor plant. But after two to three years, it often bears fragrant white flowers that turn into little red berries.

To make your own small crop of coffee, you would have to harvest the berries, clean the pulp off the seeds, dry them, heat them until the shell pops off the meats (what we call "beans") and then roast the beans. But think of the bragging rights!

Beth Botts writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Where to get fruit plants

Here are some sources for houseplants that might bear fruit. Mail-order sources may not ship until spring because of the cold. A tropical plant bought at this time of year must be protected very carefully from wind and cold even on a quick trip home.

Logee's Greenhouses Ltd., Danielson, Conn.; logees.com or 888-330-8038. Mail-order house carries many unusual tropical plants, including edible species.

Stark Bros. Nurseries & Orchards. Co., Louisiana, Mo., 800-325-4180 or starkbros.com. Venerable (since 1816) mail-order nursery specializing in fruit trees carries Meyer lemon, dwarf bananas, Valencia oranges, tangerines.

Acorn Springs Farms, Hallsville, Texas, 888-442-2676 or www.dwarfcitrus.com. Several kinds of containerized dwarf citrus. Ships all year, except in coldest weather.

[Chicago Tribune]

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