The feijoa is in the family Myrtaceae and is a small evergreen shrub with a spreading habit, usually growing to about 4m in height. It was first collected by Fredrich Sellow in the early 19th century and described in the mid 19th century and given the name Feijoa sellowiana. In the mid 20th century it was formally renamed Acca sellowiana (Berg) Burrett as this was deemed to be more botanically correct. However, its original scientific name is still used today. Common names are pineapple guava, guavasteen, and of course, feijoa.
It appears in Glenn Tankard’s Tropical Fruit book (ISBN 0 670 90205 5) but it is definitely not a tropical plant in the true sense. Feijoas originated from the south eastern area of Brazil and Uruguay which is a warm-temperate to subtropical area. This area has generally poor acidic soils and suffers dry periods. However it is important to note that feijoas grow in the plateaus of this area, ranging from 300m to 1,000m above sea level. A French botanist is credited with introducing feijoas to Europe over one hundred years ago, and I understand that all varieties we have today may well emanate from this one source.
Anyone who has eaten a well grown and modern variety of feijoa will marvel at what a beautiful tasting fruit it is. The feijoa is exceedingly fragrant, with a complex flavour. It has a cream-coloured flesh with a distinctive “star” shape when the fruit is sliced cross ways. Quality fruit, depending on the variety, can be up to 200g or more.
Where do you get these fruit? Unfortunately, quality fruit is very difficult to find in Brisbane. The best fruit I have had was grown in Auckland (NZ) - where I lived in the 1980’s. As part of my then job, I was directly involved in registering, under the NZ Plant Variety Rights Act, two cultivars Apollo and Gemini for commercial exploitation. These were selections from a research project to evaluate feijoas grown in home gardens and orchards in the greater Auckland and Northland districts. In my view the best feijoa was Apollo – excellent eating fruit with reasonable keeping qualities. Since this time new improved varieties have appeared.
I have heard people in Queensland say that they do not like the fruit of feijoas at all and from the quality (or lack of it) I have seen here, I would have to agree. Most feijoas have been grown in home gardens producing inedible fruit. The nursery industry to a large extent, have grown seedling plants for sale as ornamentals for the home gardeners. However, there are a number of named varieties you can buy. For further details on varieties available locally visit Daley’s website at: www.daleysfruit.com.au/fruitpages/feijoa.htm .
I have not grown or evaluated the “local” named varieties but am very aware of Triumph and Mammoth. These both originated from New Zealand but over time some clearly have been mis-propagated and therefore are not always true to label. You can guarantee that seedling plants will have poor fruit, even when grown from seed of well-proven varieties. The message is – be careful where you source your plants from. There are very reputable nurseries who do take great care in propagating material.
I am always on the lookout for feijoas especially in the fruiting season. You can find them in all sorts of public places including parks, large ornamental gardens, streetscaping, on university campuses, and corporate gardens. I know of one huge feijoa tree growing in a private property in Tarragindi in Brisbane that must be 50+ years old. Although it has very small fruit it does not appear to be seriously affected by fruit fly – perhaps a potential source of genetic material for plant breeding. Feijoas are grown commercially (small scale) in Victoria and Southern NSW. There is only one commercial orchard I am aware of in Queensland - it is located in Gympie. It was started about 2 years ago by Kiwis with initial plantings of 300 feijoas and a plan to increase this to possibly 8,000 trees. They should have fruit available next season.
Some varieties of feijoa are self-fertile and others require a pollinator, the general rule is plant at least two or three different varieties. The Daley’s web site (see above) will give you good information for each named cultivar. Brisbane does not have the ideal climate and I have found feijoas quite difficult to grow to produce good quality fruit. Feijoas are a hardy plant and apart from them being highly favoured by fruit fly, do not generally succumb to pest and diseases. I have found that feijoas under stress can suffer a fatal form of die back which is symptomatic of phytophthora. They will survive frost. Although they can tolerate drought periods subsequent fruit production is detrimentally affected. To get good fruit the plant needs to be watered deeply; apply superphosphate for flower production (my soil seems very deficient in phosphate); use a good general fertiliser, but do not overdose (I use Nitrophoska Blue TE for all my fruit trees); potash for fruit development; but no lime or dolomite, unless you have highly acidic soils. I do not use any chemical sprays unless I get really annoyed by the fruit fly. Take note that feijoas are primarily pollinated by birds (I once came across a Northern NSW grower who had planted a few feijoas within a large bird-proof netted area used for stone fruit, and couldn’t understand why he failed dismally to get good fruit set).
Pruning feijoas is very straightforward. Give them a light prune each year after harvest to avoid excessive spreading and lankiness. Using chainsaws or hedge cutters is OK in my book. This way they will keep a good compact shape and it will not interfere greatly with fruit production. (I like to have plants I can pick the fruit off with out having to climb ladders or use poles). If you leave the plant to grow large and straggly and then hard prune it, you may not see much fruit for a season or two.
Feijoas, depending on the cultivar, ripen from early autumn in Brisbane. They are best touched picked (i.e. hold the fruit in your hand and if it comes away easily from the branch then it is ready to pick – do not yank off) and left for one or two days before eating. Feijoas are not good keepers. The fruit will keep for maybe 10 days in the fridge. Feijoas ripen inside out, and when past their prime or exposed to air the pulp turns a brownish colour with a loss of flavour.
If you want to propagate feijoa plants then the best way is by cuttings taken at the end of the growing season in mid to late summer. Use fresh cuttings straight away; do not let them dry out. Use rooting hormone and put them in a coarse sand and peat type mix. Cover in some form of propagation tent and mist regularly, they will take 2-3 months to strike. They can be grafted with some difficulty, using the whip and tongue method gives best results. Make sure the scion wood is the same size as the rootstock to gain a close fit as is possible on the cambium layers. Grafted trees will generally bear fruit in three years and reach “stable production” in five years.
Feijoas are a healthy choice being low in kilojoules, rich in vitamin C, and are a good source of general vitamins and minerals. The flower petals are very edible and can be used in salads. The native South Americans infused the leaves as a medicinal drink. For the budding enologist - it apparently does make a very acceptable wine. Feijoa pulp can be mixed with ice cream or yoghurt to make a very nice desert. In fact feijoas can make a good substitute for recipes requiring stewed apples. Use lemon juice to stop the flesh from browning.
A recipe book is available for $9.95 from the NZ feijoa web site at www.feijoa.co.nz - click on “recipe book”. The site also has a very interesting free recipe for how to preserve feijoas for later use.
If you are interested in feijoas there are many web sites you can search on the Internet. A book I would recommend is - Thorp & Bieleski, 2002: Feijoas – Origins, Cultivation and Uses, Hort Research NZ Ltd & David Bateman Ltd – (ISBN 1-86953-503-0).