Since 1996 I have been successfully growing a fruit rarely encountered in the New World. Inquiries to Chris Rollins at the Fruit and Spice Park in Homestead, Florida, as well as to other knowledgeable fruit explorers, indicate that the species is quite a rare one in this hemisphere. Not much is known here about Elaeocarpus serratus, also called Ceylon olive.
This species is indigenous to Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon. The tree is quite ornamental; in spring the oldest leaves turn blood red and eventually absciss, but the tree remains evergreen. Many visitors believe it is an avocado tree when they first see it, but it is not related; it is in fact of the Elaeocarpaceae family and its fruits are almost indistinguishable from large green olives (the commonly known olive, Olea europaea, of the family Oleaceae).
My cutting-grown Ceylon olive tree is now eleven years old. It is planted in the ground at the southeast drip line of a large water oak. It receives morning and midday sun only, but has nevertheless been providing huge crops for the past three years. In early summer it begins to form flower buds on long racemes. By late summer these become strings of delicate, lacy, white flowers. My specimen is self-fertile and attracts a myriad of insect pollinators, notably flies, wasps and flower beetles. Fruit set is close to twenty percent.
Ceylon olives become pigeon-egg sized and here in Florida ripen January through March. They are green and olive-like, and remain so when ripe. The fruits fall when ready and spoil rapidly if not gathered and used. The flesh texture is pasty and avocado-like, but tastes slightly sour, which may indicate that it will be a source of vitamin C. Testing will determine whether this is true.
In Sri Lanka these fruits are used as mustard pickles: unripe fruits are first boiled, then squashed flat. The whole fruits are combined with diced shallots to make a mixture called country mustard. These pickles are also known as veralu acharu. Street vendors boil and press the unripe fruits and then sell them seasoned with salt and chili powder. Softer and sweeter ripened fruits are eaten with jaggery (palm sugar), which makes a pleasant snack. I’ve found that ordinary table sugar works just as well. Some Asian shops sell them pickled in salt, sugar and vinegar as Thai olives. I’ve made many versions of these, but I don’t get too excited over the taste. In India they are called verali pallam; in Sri Lanka, veralu and in Thailand, ca na. Cooking the sliced, ripe fruits in tomato sauce-based dishes is a different story; they are quite good this way. The seed kernel tastes like a brazil nut, but is very difficult to extract. The local squirrels have learned to eat them.
Culture of the Ceylon olive tree is very easy here in Florida. From seed or cuttings, it grows into a sturdy tree holding very strong branches. The plant is very cold hardy, down to 23º F (-5º C), with little damage other than on the branch tips. This tree is also very drought tolerant—no extra irrigation is needed even in severe dry seasons.
My specimen is also extremely tolerant of wet feet. After exceptional rainfall that killed adjacent olives, peaches, loquats, avocados and chestnuts, the Ceylon olive kept growing. I find that no fertilizers are required. Best of all, no pests have been noted, including aphids, leafhoppers, caterpillars, sawflies, beetles, ants, mealy bugs and scale insects.
In central Florida, propagation of Ceylon olive is very successful by cuttings, air layers and seeds, but seeds are very perishable and must be planted quickly. It grows fairly rapidly, becoming a sturdy, full tree, holding strong branches of hard wood capable of safely supporting an adult.