(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 22, 2008)
Until my husband pointed it out to me yesterday, I didn't realize our carambola tree was fruiting again.
The carambola, or star fruit as it's more commonly called, is a small tree that provides big yields of juicy, sweet-tart, star-shaped fruit throughout most of the year. Originally from Southeast Asia, carambolas were introduced to the Florida landscape about 100 years ago and are now grown commercially in four South Florida counties as well as in Hawaii, Taiwan, Malaysia, Guyana, India, the Philippines, Australia and Israel.
Although our own tree is thriving in a protected corner between the shed and house, in the beginning I didn't think it would survive.
Sensitive to cold and strong winds, the young tree suffered a severe setback shortly after planting when a winter chill killed all the leaves and most of the branches. After waiting a few months to see if any new growth would appear -- it didn't -- Ralph took out his handsaw and hacked off the entire top half of the tree. The remaining stump, all 3 feet of it, was a pitiful reminder of promised fruit yet to come.
After the tree's encounter with the saw's sharp blade, I gave up on growing a ready supply of carambolas. But I was wrong to dismiss the tree's vitality so abruptly. When the weather warmed, a flush of new branches sprouted out of the carambola's stubby base. The new shoots grew, leafed out and flourished. Soon clusters of small whitish-pink flowers appeared on the thinnest of branches. The flowers gave way to fruit -- clumps of plump, yellow-orange bells dangled enticingly beneath a canopy of leaves.
From then on, a year hasn't gone by without the tree producing at least a few -- and many times, much more than a few -- star-shaped wonders. In the past couple of years, our harvest has been bountiful and the tree, now about 15 feet tall and equally as broad, produces fruit intermittently all year round.
Although star fruit is popular in many Asian countries, most Americans are unfamiliar with it. That's too bad, because fruit from the carambola tree is as versatile as it is beautiful. It can be juiced, dried or cut into pieces and added to stir-fries. You can make pies out of it, jellies or jams. Or you can do as I do -- pluck a ripe fruit from the tree and eat it as a table fruit. When cut crosswise, a single carambola turns into a series of five-point-star-shaped slices -- yummy as well as artistic.
Living in an immediate-gratification climate where plants grow quickly and fruit production begins within only a couple years after planting, I find it unfortunate how few people experiment with edible plants.
In addition to star fruit and a wide range of citrus, Central Floridians can grow their own papayas, mangoes, Surinam cherries, figs, bananas, mulberries, blueberries, strawberries, guavas, grapes, pears, pineapples, peaches, pomegranates, plums, persimmons, avocados, blackberries, lychees, loquats and sapotes. I'm sure I'm leaving some fruit out, but the point is there's a virtual cornucopia of choices for the backyard gardener wanting to spice up his or her diet with freshly grown produce.
Not only are most of these edibles easy to grow, but they are often also attractive plants that make a welcome addition to any landscape.
Although one carambola tree has been providing our family with as much fruit as we can use -- especially now that our three older children no longer live at home -- my husband recently purchased a second tree from a nursery in South Florida. It's a different variety from the one we already have.
"Why are you getting another," I asked, "when the tree we have produces more fruit than we can eat?"
His answer reflected the unbridled passion of a fruit-loving gardener.
"I thought it would be fun," he said, "to grow some more. Besides, we can always dry any extra fruit or give them away, or freeze them or juice them or . . ."
He kept on talking as I walked back to my office. Obviously, more is better in some people's book and maybe that's how it should be. When it comes to fresh fruit grown organically on your own backyard trees, there's no such thing as too much of a good thing.