…can be harvested, by you, from your back garden in two years, with *no skill whatsoever required*. Yes, you’ve stumbled onto the TV Shopping Network, and with that custard apple big enough to fell an ox you also get a complete set of steak knives!!
Seriously, why doesn’t everyone (or at least, everyone in temperate to sub-tropical Australia) grow custard apples? Louis Glowinski, the man on underappreciated backyard fruits, suggests that anywhere you can grow a lemon tree, you can grow a custard apple (sorry, mountain dwellers and Canberrans, they don’t like a hard frost). Pretty much every garden larger than a pocket handkerchief in coastal Australia has a lemon tree, but custard apples are seen as tropical exotica.
Take it from me, the most incompetent of plant killers can grow a fruitful custard apple tree. And what fruits! Second only to the mango in my own personal fruity hall of fame. The tree itself is quite beautiful, modest in size (5-8 metres) with generous spring-green leaves, that, in Sydney at least, it loses for a few bare-branched weeks in late winter, before the next year’s bud burst. My little tree sprang up from the ground like Jack’s beanstalk, gaining about three metres in height in its first three years. Aesthetics aside, the thick skin on the fruit seems to repel fruit fly and, so far, the possums have investigated but haven’t persevered with their nibbling long enough to realise the glories that lie beneath the crocodilian skin. Long may their ignorance continue!
Louis, bless his cotton socks, while giving big raps to the cherimoya and its cousins, the atemoya (apparently the “custard apple” mostly likely to be found at the shops) and the sweetsop or sugar apple, makes fruit production sound a little tricky. According to him “cherimoyas need a relative humidity of 70-80% during flowering to set fruit and to ensure that the fruit produced is of a uniform shape and an adequate size” (221).
I think Dr Glowinski’s bar for successful fruit growing is significantly higher than mine. Bring on those illmatched and asymmetrical fruits, I say! Nonetheless, obedient as always to learned authority, as soon as the first little greenish-brown flowers appeared along the branches of my sapling, I was out there, kids’ paintbrush in one hand, recycled take-away container in the other, all ready for some assisted reproduction.
Dr Glowinski recommends collecting pollen in mid-afternoon from wide-open flowers, now releasing their pollen after of a day of sticky receptivity, and then applying it by “twirling the brush several times around the conical ovary” (222) of the newly opened “female” blooms of late afternoon. He describes a couple of other even more complex methods, involving toothpicks, blotting paper and refrigerated paperbags but my brain slid off these entirely. Glowinski recommends you continue doing this every few days until you are satisfied with the number of fruit set. Or in my case, until the paintbrush gets used for children’s craft activities. Who knows what glitter paint could do to the symmetry of my cherimoya harvest?
I’m pretty sure my ovary twirling lacked a certain something, as only two fruits eventuated from that first foray into annona IVF. Then, last spring we were overseas for several months during the custard apple breeding season. I didn’t hold out much hope for this year’s harvest – it seemed a bit much to ask our Swedish tenants to get so deeply involved in the sexual lives of our fruit trees. Surprisingly, however, without any kind of moral or technical support from me, we had a crop of four fruits this year. I will admit, our crop lacked something in consistent sizing. But it tasted fabulous.
I’ll be back to the interventionist approach to the custard apples this year. With luck next winter the tree will be groaning with perfectly symmetrical fruit. In fact, there may be a cascade of intervention, since my custard apple, never having felt the touch of a blade, thanks to my morbid fear of pruning, doesn’t look like it could endure that kind of heavy burden.
In a previous life as a cramped British gardener I accidentally executed a morello cherry with my secateurs and I live in fear of more casualties. But, despite a fairly sheltered position, my cherimoya, made vulnerable by its broad leaves and long whippy branches, has already been topped by a brutal southerly. I’m going to have to get out there, Glowinski’s Complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia in one clammy hand, and work on those “second generation laterals” and “wider angled crotches” (220). I’m encouraged by the thought that no matter how crudely I amputate the poor thing, chances are it will produce a few misshapen but delicious fruits anyway.