ripening guavas

With winter well and truly setting in, the flashy fruits of summer and autumn are long gone and our fruit bowls are stocked with dependable, storage-friendly apples, kiwifruit and citrus. Did you know there’s a bright flavour-bomb of a fruit that ripens on the heels of the feijoa and steadily produces into the winter months? You may not have heard of it, but there’s a good chance your neighbourhood kererū as if there’s one planted close by. It’s the cherry, strawberry or Cattley guava, Psidium cattleianum (also commonly spelt cattleyanum) and I’ve recently seen one or two videos posted online of kererū happily gulping down guava after guava, each whole fruit comically visible as a Giant Jaffa-sized bulge as it works its way down the bird’s gullet.

My own introduction to guavas, in general, was as a child via the tinned, bright pink tropical guava halves in syrup, Silverleaf brand as I remember them, which were (and still are) imported from South Africa. Although tropical guavas (Psidium guajava) can be grown here in the winterless north, or under glass in cooler regions, you’re more likely to run into one of its diminutive cousins. I stumbled on cherry guavas much more recently as a fully-grown human being – these much smaller fruits are indeed related to the tropical guava, as well as the even smaller grape to pea-sized Chilean guava (Ugni molinae, syn. Myrtus ugni, a.k.a New Zealand cranberry, a popular hedging species).

There are red and yellow cherry guava variants and the fruit is tart, tangy and aromatic – just the thing to wake up jaded winter palates. The best thing about cherry guavas is that the fruit doesn’t ripen all at once, so you can harvest the vitamin C-rich globes over an extended timeframe. They are tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, can be pruned to fit small spaces and as well as used as a hedging species. They are highly ornamental, with showy white flowers in spring and attractive, glossy evergreen foliage.

Cherry guavas: a short family history

Cherry guavas belong to the Myrtaceae family, along with their other guava cousins as previously mentioned. Other well-known relatives include feijoas, jaboticaba, Eucalyptus spp. and our own taonga species pōhutukawa, rātā and swamp maire. The red-fruited cherry guava, P. cattleianum var. cattleianum has a more diminutive shrub-like growth form and smaller, more strongly flavoured tangy fruit than the yellow-fruited P. cattleianum var. littorale, which has larger, aromatic fruit and a more tree-like form, which under conducive conditions can reach heights of up to about twelve metres.

Native to tropical South America, namely Brazil, P. cattleianum has spread by the usual methods of plant collection and distribution with the early horticulturalists. It is now present in many other tropical and sub-tropical regions around the world. The species epithet cattleianum originates from English horticulturalist William Cattley, responsible for this guava’s cultivation in England in the early 19th century. Unfortunately due to the cherry guava fruit’s seedy nature and palatability to birds, wild pigs and wildlife in general (I have read many anecdotes confirming the fruit is also irresistible to domestic canines), it has become an invasive species in some locations – Hawaii, Réunion and Norfolk Island, of particular note. Similar issues are arising in northern regions of New Zealand, Auckland in particular and as such, this species may be subject to Regional Plant Pest Management orders – check with your local council before planting. In its native range in Brazil, P. cattleianum forms a non-dominant natural component of forest ecosystems and is used as a reforestation species in land reclamation projects, a testament to its wide-ranging environmental tolerance and ability to quickly establish via seed.

Cherry guava fruit can be eaten out of hand as fresh fruit, skin, seeds and all – my preference is to remove the knobbly calyx first, however. The numerous seeds are extremely hard and likely to give your teeth a workout, so swallow them whole. When making jams and desserts from the fruit, extracting the pulp by pressing the fruit through a sieve or mouli is advisable. The extracted seeds can be dried, roasted and used as a coffee substitute or bulking agent, but I’m not sure I’d bother - a tea can also be brewed from the leaves. Cherry guava wood is hard and durable and therefore suitable for tool handles. It is often used for lathe woodworking, charcoal production and as a source of firewood.

Suitable climates and growing conditions

Cherry guavas will grow well in areas where citrus also thrives – in New Zealand, this roughly translates to the North Island and the Upper South Island. I have heard of people coaxing a few fruits from outdoor plants in Canterbury, but it is probably best to grow cherry guavas under shelter in a greenhouse or in a large transportable container anywhere south of Nelson-Marlborough – the plants will withstand light frosts but not much more than -5°C for short periods. The yellow-fruited variant is less cold-tolerant than the red.

Cherry guavas are shade-tolerant (which contributes to their invasive nature, allowing the plants to survive in the forest understorey) but will do best in full sun. The plant’s glossy dark green leaves lend it a degree of salt tolerance, so cherry guavas may have a place in coastal gardens. Mature trees can withstand windy conditions, but young plants require protection in the establishment phase.

Site selection and planting

Choose a position in full sun to part shade. Guavas in general will tolerate a wide range of soil pH values, from 3.5 to 7.5 - a handy characteristic, given many other edibles are finicky and have specific preferences when it comes to this factor. Red cherry guavas should be planted at two to four-metre spacings, and the larger yellow variety at a minimum of four metres apart. Red cherry guavas will reach three to five metres in height at maturity and the yellow reportedly up to 10-12 metres – perhaps a little less in the New Zealand climate.

You can expect a crop from the second year after planting, but it may be a further five or six years before full production is reached. Harvest begins in late May and can extend into August or even early spring. Pick the fruit when it begins to change from green to uniformly deep red or yellow and softening commences – overripe fruit is a target for fruit flies, so unless you are a fan of the protein/fruit combination, harvest earlier rather than later!

Culture and care

Cherry guavas are easy-care garden additions. Both varieties do best with regular irrigation during the fruit development phase. The red has a degree of drought tolerance while the yellow can tolerate some waterlogging. For superior fruit production, apply a side-dressing of general or citrus fertiliser three or four times per year – aim for October, December, February and April. Use the directions on the bag to calculate how much to apply based on the size of your plant. Spread out to the dripline prior to forecast rainfall or water in well after application.

Propagation is by seed (bear in mind, this will result in genetic variation, with plants not necessarily growing true to their parents AND seedling plants can take around eight years to produce fruit), semi-hardwood cuttings, via rooted runners or layering. Given the potentially weedy nature of this species, why not just raid your neighbour’s garden for fruit instead (ask nicely first) or go foraging.

Cherry guavas are self-fertile and pollinated by insects and birds, so no polliniser variety is required.

Pruning

Cherry guavas fruit on the current season’s growth – you must carry out any pruning by early spring at the latest, otherwise, you risk pruning off that year’s crop! Late autumn is a safer bet.

When planting a young tree, take into account its location and your desired end shape – you can prune cherry guavas to take the form of a small to medium tree with a main trunk, selecting several leaders as a foundation, or prune to the bush or hedge form for easy harvesting.

Pests, diseases and what to do about them

Apart from birds, dogs, fruit flies and wild pigs feasting on the fruit (hopefully few instances of the latter in suburbia), cherry guavas are not a problematic crop to grow.

All guavas are susceptible to myrtle rust (Austropuccinia psidii), the bright yellow fungus affecting plants in the Myrtaceae that arrived in New Zealand in 2017. If you see an infestation of guavas in your garden, dig up the plants and destroy them, as they will become a reservoir for the disease and it’s a burden our precious native species could do without. Find out more information here:
https://myrtlerust.org.nz/
https://www.mpi.govt.nz/biosecurity/long-term-biosecurity-management-programmes/myrtle-rust-in-new-zealand/
https://www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/environment/plants-animals/protect-trees-disease/Pages/protect-plants-from-myrtle-rust.aspx

Varieties: My top picks

Incredible Edibles carries the two cherry guava varieties
Red cherry guava – deep-red skinned 2.5 cm diameter fruits. Sweet and tangy in flavour. Grows 2-4 metres. Compact growth, glossy dark green leaves, new growth is red-bronze.
Yellow cherry guava – pale yellow-skinned fruit, 2.5-4 cm in diameter. Sweet and aromatic. Spreading growth habit. As with red cherry guavas, the foliage is highly ornamental, glossy dark green leaves with red-bronze new growth.

What to do with your crop

Cherry guavas are a good source of vitamin C and fibre. What do they taste like? To me, they taste like Christmas, tangy and fruity mixed with a hefty whack of resinous, conifer-like seasonality. Others say tart passionfruit with a whiff of strawberry but I’m sticking with Christmas, let me know your thoughts.

With their strong flavour and high pectin content, cherry guavas (the red ones in particular) are a prime candidate for jams and jellies. They lend themselves very well to the latter, given the jelly-making method involves straining out the seeds and pulp at an early stage of the process. Red cherry guava jelly is a stunning, ruby-hued conserve perfect for gifting.

To be honest, I’m not much of a jelly consumer and prefer to make fruit leather from my guavas. By the end of autumn I’m all preserved out, so usually end up stewing and freezing any guava gifts. You could also free-flow freeze the whole raw fruit. Guavas behave a lot like gritty feijoas in fruit leather mixtures, so to avoid a sandpaper-like confection, I up the stewed apple or pear component and use one part guava puree to three parts pureed, stewed apple and/or pear.

If you’re preparing a great number of guavas for any use other than jelly, I suggest you invest in a good old hand-cranked mouli-légumes – you can buy these new, or pick them up for a song in a second-hand shop. You could also pester friends whose children have graduated from the soft-pureed food stage. If they still have a mouli in the cupboard from the fleeting homemade baby food era, you can offer to help them declutter a la Marie Kondo. I procured one of my moulis in this manner nearly three decades after my friend’s children had flown the nest – does it bring me joy? Yes. Use the plate with the smallest holes for preparing guavas.

Because I’m not big on guava jam or jelly, here’s what I made recently with a tub of stewed guavas.

Cherry guava gums

Pass stewed guavas through a mouli into a bowl, using the plate with the smallest holes to avoid dental misadventures at the hands of stray seeds. Do this in batches of about a cup at a time, turning the handle both clockwise and anticlockwise to prevent blockages and make sure you get all the pulp out. I periodically scrape the pulp away from the underside of the mouli too. From 650 g of stewed fruit, I extracted 480 g of guava puree. When you can squeeze no more pulp from the mass of skins and seeds left in the mouli, transfer the skins and seeds to a medium size saucepan and cover with 2-3 cups of water – stir well and set aside.

Lightly grease a 20 x 10 cm loaf pan with oil. Taste your guava puree and sweeten it with honey or sugar – I found I didn’t need to add any, but later regretted this decision. To every 240 g (about a cup) of guava puree, add either two tablespoons of powdered gelatine or the equivalent in a vegetable setting agent. As a rule of thumb, you want to use twice the amount you would use to set two cups/500 ml of liquid according to the packet directions. I used two 8 g sachets of Queen Jell-it-in, which uses carrageenan and locust bean gum as setting agents. Whisk well to combine – if using gelatine, you can leave it to bloom for 5-10 minutes, but this step is dispensable in this recipe. Heat the mixture over medium heat until it just reaches boiling point, stirring well. Remove from the heat and pour into the prepared loaf tin. The vegetarian version will start to thicken as soon as you add the setting agent and needs to be poured into the tin very quickly as it firms up fast once off the heat. It will also have a more jelly-like texture, whereas the gelatine version can be chewier.

Place the tin in the fridge to set overnight. The next day, prise the slab out with a knife and cut it into squares. Store in an airtight container in the fridge. You can go next-level fancy and coat them in a mixture of ½ cup sugar mixed with 1 tsp citric or tartaric acid immediately before you eat them, for sweet-sour gums.

Bonus cherry guava fruit drink from skins and seeds

Bring the skins, seeds and water you placed in the saucepan to the boil over high heat – stir well, taste and add honey to sweeten. Simmer for about five minutes then remove from the heat. Strain through a sieve when cool and store in a covered jug or bottle for up to a week in the fridge. Don’t compost the seeds – put them straight in your refuse bin.
650 g stewed whole guavas gave me 480 g pulp (two batches of gums) and 600 ml of fruit drink.

I found that I enjoyed the fruit drink (made as an afterthought) so much that I went and raided my friends’ plant for more fruit and made a long-keeping cordial. It goes like this…

Cherry guava cordial

Preheat the oven to 125°C. Wash some glass bottles with lacquered metal lids (300-500 ml capacity) in hot soapy water. Place in the oven and heat for 30 minutes to sterilise. Place the lids in a small saucepan of water and boil for ten minutes.

Place 700 g washed cherry guavas in a large pan and cover with 750 ml water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until soft and pulpy, crushing the fruit with a potato masher once they are soft enough. After 10-15 minutes, strain through a sieve into a glass jug (you can line the sieve with a jelly bag, old tea towel or clean Chux cloth if you like clear, sediment-free cordial). Give the pan a rinse and return the juice to it. Add 350 g sugar and two teaspoons of citric or tartaric acid (or one of each of you have both). Drop a soup ladle into the pot. Stir well, bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes.

Carefully remove the bottles from the oven using tongs or a tea towel and place them on a wooden chopping board. Rinse a funnel with boiling water and fill bottles to within 1 cm of the rim with hot cordial. Top immediately with hot sterilised lids and screw down tightly. Leave to cool for 24 hours, wipe down the bottles with a damp cloth and store. Dilute to taste with sparkling or still water, and refrigerate once open.

Anna-Marie Barnes is an active member of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association who endeavours to grow and preserve as much of her own fresh produce as possible. When the weather’s no good for gardening, she can usually be found inside working on a batch of homemade cheese or soap.

The New Zealand Tree Crops Association is a voluntary organisation promoting interest in useful trees, such as those producing fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, wood, stock fodder, bee forage and other productive crops. Find out more about the NZTCA here: https://treecrops.org.nz/

Image credits
Psidium cattleianum fruit at various stages of ripening – Anna-Marie Barnes
Psidium cattleianum illustration – John Lindley, Collectanea botanica, 1821 (Public Domain).
Psidium cattleianum fruit – Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58201122