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Desert harvest: Growing fruit trees in a tough, arid climate

By Jeremy Olin, owner of Fresh New Fruit Landscaping

Here in Southern California, we all love to eat a fresh avocado, drink a glass of sun-ripened orange juice, or harvest a delicious plum from our backyard trees.  However, growing fruit trees in an arid climate can be challenging when taking into consideration the amount of water it takes to produce our favorite varieties of fruit.

For instance, a pound of fresh avocados takes 141 gallons of water to produce. A pound of oranges takes 67 gallons of water to produce. And plums need 261 gallons of water to produce just one pound of fruit. These types of fruit trees provide large, succulent foods when watered well. Healthy fruit trees create sugars in warm seasons, while a fruit tree in poor health may create sour or bitter fruit.

So, how can we grow delicious fruit in arid Southern California, while conserving our states most precious resource – water?

As gardeners, we can employ the basics of saving water in general, such as: green mulching, composting, deep watering, greywater recycling, and Hugelkulture, a composting process employing raised planting beds constructed on top of decaying wood debris and other compostable plant materials designed to improve water retention and improve soil fertility. We can also choose to plant ‘drought thriving’ fruit trees in our gardens that produce more exotic and delicious fruits that are sometimes sweet, but are more on the salty, sour and small side. Some arid climate trees also provide edible flowers, leaves, bark, etc. that make a delicious addition to any salads or side dishes served at your table.

Some of the ‘drought thriving’ fruit trees that do well in low-water climates include:

Surinam cherry (Eugenia uniflora)

Drought thriving, fabulous sweet sour fruit resembles a habanero Chile in appearance.  Skin so tender the fruit must be collected from the tree.  Huge harvests and commercially available.

Lilly Pilly (Syzygium smithii)

Drought thriving tree commonly used for hedges, borders and fencing in San Diego.  Small, dry, purple or blue fruits.  Try Blue Lilly Pilly, it is a lavender and ginger flavored variety.

Guava (psidium sp.)

Drought thriving tree that produce huge amount of fruit with edible seeds and skin.  Very healthy.  Strong tropical fruit odor near the tree in fruiting season.

Rose apple (Syzygium jambos)

Drought thriving, dry, rose flavored fruit about the size of a walnut.  Crunches like an apple.  Overabundance of fruit each year.  The tree can get 40 feet tall almost as wide.

Bellfruit (Syzygium samarangense)

Drought thriving tree that produces beautiful, jicama tasting dry small fruit.  Magenta pink fruits burden the limbs and decorate any space.  Can be a messy tree.

Ceylon Gooseberry (Dovyalis hebecarpa)

The drought thriving Dovyalis hebecarpa and caffra trees produce a surplus of very sour fruit.  The dense trees have 2-3 inch sharp spines.  D. hebecarpa is a cranberry like fruit, sour and red, about the size of a dime.  Caffra is like a very sour apricot.

Jujube (ziziphus jujube)

Drought thriving, small, sweet/sour dry fruit.  Aggressive runners.  Decidious.

Satinleaf (Chrysophyllum oliviforme)

Drought thriving, gorgeous ornamental value.  Beautiful fruits taste like tropical figs and look like olive.  Not especially delicious.

Pineapple guava (acca sellowiana)

Drought thriving, edible flowers and surplus of fruit each year.

Lucuma (Pouteria lucuma)

Drought thriving, Lucuma is a very dry fruit that tastes like sweet potato.  An excellent flavor and nutrition profile.

Also fig, pomegranate, and citrus are good choices for drought tolerant trees.