THE FRUIT HISTORY
OF PUERTO RICO
by Sadhu Govardhan
Most people assume that the Caribbean islands were always lush tropical paradises with an abundance of genetic and biological diversity. But let us take a closer look at the actual fruit history of the Caribbean and Puerto Rico in particular:
The first references to fruits grown in Puerto Rico can be found in historical accounts of Taino culture. When the Spaniards arrived in the late 15th century, the only fruits cultivated on the island were guava (guayaba), sugar apple (anon), ambarella (jobo), mamey, papaya and pineapple (piña). The majority of these fruits were brought by their Arawak predecessors from northern South America. Thus, there were hardly ever any indigenous fruits on the island at all, and the vast majority of the mainstream fruits consumed today (citrus, mango, avocado, banana, plantain, breadfruit, coconut, etc.) were brought in by sea travelers throughout the centuries.
Primarily for political reasons, there was never much emphasis placed on growing a significant number of tropical fruit and nut species in Puerto Rico. Instead, the farmers of Puerto Rico were forced by the Spanish conquerors to turn away from an already very limited food crop diversity in order to help provide other countries with addictive substances like white sugar, coffee or tobacco. The slave-like working conditions on those plantations were so bad at times that they often incurred strikes and uprisings. After the tobacco and sugar cane plantations were finally terminated in the 1930s and 1960s respectively, the agricultural void was never filled. Farming declined by and large, and no attempts for diversified and dynamic fruit cultivation were made.
For these reasons, Puerto Rico’s small scale farmers never played an important economic role in its history. During the 400 years of Spanish rule, Puerto Rico was considered unimportant as an agricultural producer. With the advent of U.S. rule in the late 19th century, independent agricultural production became even further marginalized.
While most tropical countries have an economically impressive, steadily growing fruit production trend, there are less than a dozen of fruit species produced on a large scale in Puerto Rico. Out of the approximately 10,000 existing tropical fruit species on the planet, at least 500 of them are mainstream fruits in tropical regions around the world. As unbelievable as it may sound, there are still only two species of tropical nuts grown on a limited scale: almendra (Terminalia catappa) and pajuil (Anacardium occidentale). At the same time, at least 30-40 potentially marketable tropical nut species could be grown on the island.
Although two famous tropical research stations (TARS/Mayagüez, Trujillo Alto) were established in the early 20th century, originally intending to promote new tropical food crops, their research focus eventually narrowed to only a few major cash crop species (like cacao, sorghum, beans, or bananas and plantains) and problem-solving in conventional agriculture. Many of the original fruit strains grown were not the best selections, and a good amount of them disappeared throughout the decades due to hurricanes or neglect of replanting. Fortunately, some important fruit and nut crops were preserved, and the free germplasm distributed by the Mayagüez station helped some of the local and foreign collectors/farmers start their collections. I for one, am grateful for the support and general reciprocation of the Mayagüez station, which I still visit frequently.
THE FRUIT EXPLOSION
The first nursery that promoted more than just a few fruit species in Puerto Rico was Jardines Eneida in Cabo Rojo. The owner, Milton Perez, popularized several dozen lesser known but promising species along with common mainstream species, starting in the 1970s. Private collectors also brought in new species and towards the end of the millennium, there were about 150 tropical fruit and nut species grown in Puerto Rico – the majority of species introduced by USDA/TARS.
Since 2000, there has been a virtual fruit explosion: a small number of private collectors have brought in (legally) more tropical fruit and nut species (an estimated additional 250 species), than were introduced and established over the past few hundred years. The two biggest contributors in terms of new species were Felipe Osborne and the author of this article (I introduced and popularized almost 200 new species since I opened my rare fruit nursery in the early 2000s, and my collection has grown into the most diversified tropical fruit and nut collection in Puerto Rico, and even the entire Caribbean). These new and much needed introductions (for the sake of increasing bio-diversity and to strengthen the economical potential of fruit production) are now gradually spreading throughout the island.
In 2000, Felipe Osborne started the bi-annual Equinox meeting for fruit enthusiasts to trade and sell lesser common species of fruits. In 2006, Juan A. Rivero and Bryan R. Brunner published “Arboles frutales exóticos y poco conocidos en Puerto Rico”, which served as an introduction to new collectors and gave an overview of what was cultivated by the year 2002 in Puerto Rico.
In 2008, El Nuevo Dia published the most comprehensive article about tropical fruits of any mainstream media in Puerto Rico’s history. The article, written by Aurora Rivera, was packed with gorgeous full color fruit pictures from my farm and covered four pages. The title was “Exótico Paraíso Frutal en el Vivero Govardhan Gardens en Mayagüez”. The article was so attractive and well written that many people kept it and even today - three years later - some of my visitors bring this article with them when they visit my nursery.
When I moved to the island in 1999/2000, there were about 5 or 6 (private and public) fruit collections with over 100 species, and a few dozen collections with 25-50 species. Today (2011), there are over 100 collections with over 100 species, and at least ten private and public collections with more than 175 species of tropical fruits and nuts in Puerto Rico. Other crops like flowers (heliconias, orchides), palms or bamboo have gone through similar explosive developments. Since many of the most important tropical fruit and nut species on the planet are already cultivated by enthusiastic collectors around the entire island, it is safe to say that the fruit self sufficiency of Puerto Rico’s future is relatively secure.
Despite the tremendous benefits of these new crops, there is occasionally some resistance, even to new fruit crops: some people claim that there is potential danger with “invasive species”. When confronted with providing sound examples, the species mentioned are usually obscure (Schinus terebinthifolius or Solanum viarum , amongst others) and are hardly cultivated by anyone. In reality, the potentially most invasive fruit species have already been here for a long time: wild mango and guava. Can they legitimately be considered a problem for the island? Certainly not. Instead of spreading the myth of “dangerous, invasive fruits” it would be more appropriate to compile a list with the few tropical fruit species (not even 0.5% of all existing tropical fruit tree species) that are either invasive or contain potentially harmful properties.
Another occasional argument against the introduction of new fruits and nuts is purely political, and even less reasonable: “Instead of new fruits, we should promote only local fruits”. By the token of this poor logic, we are not supposed to eat mangos, avocados, breadfruit or coconut because they were all introduced from other places. If this thought would have been present hundreds of years ago, we would only have a handful of edible fruit species in Puerto Rico.
Instead of diversifying and increasing local production, there is a considerable effort made to fill the supermarkets with fruits from temperate climates: grapes, apples, pears, peach, etc. and even to promote growing them. Although it may be legitimate to grow some of them in higher altitudes, this doesn't seem economically wise: there are so few areas on the island where temperate fruits will produce well, and even then, the fruits will generally be smaller and the quality inferior to temperate climate grown ones. However, there are literally hundreds, or even thousands of tropical species that could grow and fruit perfectly well in Puerto Rico or any other tropical region.
For the purpose of making these new fruits more known, I have written “ Oro Verde – Securing the Future of our Food ” in 2007. The book describes new fruit species with high appeal. Over the time span of 12 years, I have also established the most diversified tropical fruit and nut collection (350 species by 2011; update: 400 species by 2013) in the Caribbean. Every year, hundreds of visitors enjoy the tours of the gardens.
The introduction of these new fruit and nut varieties is not meant to replace any of the currently existing crops on the island — rather, they are meant as much-needed additions for the benefit of future generations. These new crops will help the island to become more agriculturally self-sufficient, and it will also improve the quality of our diet.
Most fruits have a wide range of fruit quality, and therefore one single sample usually does not accurately represent the species. Here an example: pitanga (Eugenia uniflora) can range from barely edible to excellent-tasting, depending on the tree it came from.
Another issue to consider is taste acclimation: not all fruits excite our taste buds immediately. For some, we need more time to learn to relish them. A good example in this regard is durian: at first, we may not be able to relate to the combination of flavors (e.g., some durian types are described of having a flavor or “burnt almonds blended with carrot juice”, others as “undertones of banana and grape” and yet others “a rich, butter-like custard highly flavored with almonds, but intermingled with wafts of flavor that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, brown sherry and other incongruities. The more you eat of it, the less you feel inclined to stop”) but in due course of time, it may well become one of our favorite fruits.
One issue that naturally comes up with new crops is the nomenclature. My take on this is that fruits should be called by the most popular name in their region of origin. There is no need to bend over backwards to find translations for every single fruit into every single language. Also, in order to understand a fruit better in its context with other fruits, its best to learn their botanical names – its much easier than many would assume. The scientific or botanical names of fruits are a global language that simplify the identification instantly.
Out of all the edible crops (grains, vegetables, herbs, nuts, fruits), fruits and nuts are the slowest to cultivate, and they also take up considerable space.It is therefore advisable for most small scale farmers to first secure their income with vegetable and herb crops and grow fruit crops as a future source of additional income from the farm. Most fruit crops take between 4 and 10 years before significant yields can be seen. Although it takes a relatively long time to see the fruits of one’s labor, fruit crops are in most cases relatively easy to maintain and some of them are very profitable. Furthermore, it is important that farmers provide their community with as many edible crops as possible.
Before growing any fruit commercially, it is essential to understand one’s microclimate and soil and to have a very clear idea of the investment in terms of acquiring the plant material, physical and financial maintenance of the crop area and marketing options. E.g. only a few hundred feet of difference in elevation can make a crop like avocado or mango either a success or a failure. Also, particular cultivars and the optimal site may make a difference of several thousands dollars per acre. Once these factors are thoroughly understood, one can go ahead and select the most suitable crops based on the given conditions. In general, it is advisable to have a commercial fruit orchard planned out by an expert.
IMPORTING NEW SPECIES
One important issue when importing new fruit and nut seeds is to make sure that all seeds are surface-sterilized (e.g., with a 10% chlorox solution). Even for very small seed amounts, the USDA/APHIS requires an import permit. It is not difficult to get the permit (online or at the APHIS office in San Juan), and it allows to import 50 seeds of 50 different species, or if the seeds are tiny, not more than 10 grams. The seeds must be easily inspected and should therefore be in clear packaging, clearly labeled as to species, and free of soil or pest harboring plant tissues.
Plants and plant material are more difficult to sterilize, and the current regulations require additional permits (regular import permit or post entry permit plus phytosanitary certificate – which is generally not honored if it is issued in any country outside the U.S.). Unfortunately, there are many reports by private people that the small lot seed import permit is not honored by the US Customs and Border Protection Agency or by APHIS. Many seeds are confiscated and destroyed without giving any solid reason.
For those who are interested in acquiring seeds of new species, it is advisable to remain updated about prohibited species – they are only a few so far and fact sheets can be acquired at the local Department of Agriculture. I highly recommend to stay away from hybrid seeds of over-commercialized fruits, and instead try to either trade with or buy from organic farmers, private collectors or public institutions with diversified collections.
Today, many of the best tropical fruit and nut trees can by now be found in local nurseries, which makes acquiring new species significantly easier than even just a decade ago. My own Govardhan Gardens nursery regularly carries around 100 different species of common and rare tropical fruits and nuts at any given time, and people can choose from over 200 species.
© Sadhu Govardhan, 2007, 2011, 2013, 2015