Eat the peanut butter fruit whole - the stone included because it tastes like a peanut; peel a cherry mangosteen before popping it into your mouth and don’t swallow the pit; jujibia is a juicy, light fruit and should be had without the pit…a tour of Sreekumar Menon’s tropical fruit garden at Manjapetty, near Perumbavoor, should be accompanied with an instruction manual.
On an acre of land by the banks of the Periyar, Sreekumar indulges himself with a tropical fruit garden. Over the last four to five years he has managed to cultivate almost 250 varieties of tropical fruits from countries as diverse as Indonesia, Nigeria, New Zealand, Borneo, Jamaica and Bolivia. The Aluva-based businessman says, “Initially I was just plain curious about tropical fruits, it then went on to become a full-fledged hobby.” He ‘sources’ his plants from across the world, through a ‘well-connected network of friends’ is all he will divulge.
More than a garden this is a mini forest. Fruits are few this time of the year, it is ‘off season’. Some of the trees are blooming, “the fruits will come later. We have fruits till the rains, which is why there are no fruits now.” There are, however, the all-year round varieties such as peanut butter fruit ( Bunchosia Argentea ) and jujibia ( Ziziphus zizyphus ).
Each tree/plant has been catalogued along with its botanical name. Inside a tool shed within the premises are stacked several name plaques. There are several saplings in small bags, their tiny shoots reaching out to sunlight and the elements.
“Those inside are their names,” says Sreekumar. Assisting him is Rajan Nair, who lives near the plot. He waters the saplings, plants, and trees once a day, “it is a couple of hours work daily,” he says. Sreekumar drops in whenever he can and potters around.
“Since ours is a tropical climate, I opted for tropical fruits. These are plants that are suited for our climate and they thrive too,” he says. If, by chance, the tree doesn’t survive there is backup either in the form of saplings of the same plant. He clarifies that this garden is just a hobby and not a commercial venture.
He uses natural manure – dried dung and water, doesn’t use chemical fertilisers. One of the challenges he faces is getting saplings to grow from seeds. He did not even have a nodding acquaintance with botany but a childhood interest in plants grew into this unusual hobby.
He is part of online communities of similar dedicated hobbyists. The more he learnt about the world of tropical fruits the more he got drawn to it. His family, he jokes, thinks he is wasting his time. They have now, he says, come around and even enjoy the unusual tastes of these exotic fruits.
As he takes us on a tour of his garden, he points to each tree and gives a detailed description – country of origin and properties. He says he reads extensively about the plants on the Net and hence the encyclopaedic knowledge.
Miracle fruit ( Synsepalum dulcificum ) found in Africa, he says, sweetens every thing eaten after it for an hour to two hours; Monk fruit ( Siraitia grosvenorii ), found in south-east Asia, is among the sweetest fruits known to man; the Vietnamese Gac fruit ( Momordica cochinchinensis spreng ) is a round, thorny ball of a fruit; Inca nut fruit ( Plukenetia volubilis ) is as an ancient Incan super food; Kola nut ( Cola acuminata ) from Africa said to contain caffeine and is used to flavour beverages; Ackee ( Blighia sapida ) this native of West Africa is the national fruit of Jamaica and is used extensively in Jamaican cuisine; Katemfe ( Thaumatococcus danielli ) found in West Africa, is a low calorie-sweetener and flavour modifier; Cassabanana ( Sicana odorifera ) from the forests of South America is a sweet fruit…and these are just some the fruits that Sreekumar has in his fruit garden. There are around 200 more varieties to go. Punctuating these are the odd-indigenous plants such as rose apples (of course there is the Thai rose apple) and plantains.
Sreekumar says as far as tropical fruits go, he has as many as is possible but he is on the lookout for more. He plans to construct his house in the same water-front compound, “but that is on the other side. This side will be the fruit garden.”
It is not just fruits he has a collection of 25 varieties of pepper including the legendary Bhut Jolokia from Nagaland; a collection he is proud of. As the number of plants and trees increase he has to cut down the existing nutmeg trees, “that’s the only way I can make space for them all.”