I’m pretty sure kiwifruit takes centre stage as New Zealand’s national fruit, but I reckon the feijoa runs a very close second. Supermarket shelves, greengrocers’ bins and roadside stalls are bursting with these fragrant green grenades in autumn, not to mention the many hundreds more littering lawns throughout the nation. You either love or hate the floral-medicinal flavour of these fruits, although, like olives, capers and anchovies, an acquired taste can develop over time. My Mum never partook in the feijoa frenzy when I was a child, but during the years after I left home for university she developed a liking for them and now keeps on top of her crop as well as churning out feijoa and date cakes left, right and centre. Whether this adaptation was borne out of natural curiosity or waste not, want not the mentality I’m not sure, but good on her. Feijoas were the go-to autumn garden snack for us as kids, with the ‘pick them up off the ground, not off the bush’ rule drummed in from the start. To this day I’m very wary of under-ripe feijoas and their mouth-puckering acidity. Eagle eyes keenly kept watch for the first fruit to drop and we’d descend with our teaspoons to scoop and slurp. Only the hardy ate them skin and all. Those early bushes were likely seedlings, with great variation in fruit size, shape, flavour and sweetness from plant to plant. To this day I’ll choose a light green-skinned, elongated fruit over a dumpier, egg-shaped dark-skinned fruit given the chance as I find the former sweeter and more flavourful. One elderly neighbour of ours had the most amazing fruit-tree-covered section with a couple of mature, tree-like feijoas that produced fruit the size of small cucumbers – I’m not sure if this was due to the rabbit-dropping fertiliser they received, the kindly gentleman’s green-fingered knack or a combination of both, but those feijoas were legendary in our street.
Feijoas: a short family history
The feijoa, Feijoa sellowiana (more recently reclassified but less commonly referred to as Acca sellowiana) hails from South America, where it is native to Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Colombia. The genus, of which F. sellowiana is the sole occupant, is named after Portuguese naturalist João da Silva Feijó and the species epithet is derived from the surname of German botanist Friedrich Sellow, who collected the initial feijoa plant specimens from southern Brazil. These early explorers took plant material with them back to Europe, which then dispersed around the world. It is thought that New Zealand’s strains originate from three cultivars from Australia and that these arrived on our shores in 1908. After many years of ambiguity due to the variability of fruit produced by seedling plants, selections were made from bushes with desirable fruit characteristics, and then vegetative propagation commenced, resulting in known cultivars, some of which are still around today. Fast forward several decades and the feijoa is probably now more popular in New Zealand than in any other country. Ex-pats scour overseas markets for them and eagerly seek the fruit out when they return to the Antipodes. Strangely, they don’t seem to have caught on in Australia on any large scale, with the fruit we export there commanding a high price (and causing great excitement amongst Kiwis when they hit the supermarket). Feijoas belong to the Myrtaceae or myrtle family, with only a few fruity cousins – guavas and the curious jaboticaba. In the ornamental line, and the flowers are a giveaway here, they are related to our endemic pōhutukawa and rātā as well as aromatic exotics such as Eucalyptus spp., Pimenta dioica (allspice), Syzygium aromaticum (clove) and the West Indian bay rum tree, Pimenta racemosa. Also known overseas as pineapple guava and guavasteen, many describe the flavour as a mixture of pineapple, guava and strawberry. The distinct aroma is due to the presence of the ester methyl benzoate, which can be chemically synthesised and used as an artificial flavouring – there are now many feijoa-flavoured confectioneries on the market, no doubt a boon for homesick Kiwis unable to access the fresh fruit!
Suitable climates and growing conditions
Like Meyer lemons and Sanguine peaches, feijoas are a hardy Kiwi backyard staple. In the early days of feijoa cultivation, seedling varieties were used as an attractive hedging plant, but close-planting generally results in reduced fruiting. Feijoas make an excellent specimen tree or standard grown on the front or back lawn - allowing grass to colonize the area directly beneath the bush will make fruit collection easier and keep the fruit in good condition as it falls, but keep the lawn mown short to avoid too much competition with the tree for water or nutrients.
Tolerant to most climates, feijoas will grow well and produce fruit right across the entire country. In its native range, the feijoa grows in mountainous highland regions and at forest margins. They require at least 75 hours of winter chilling to set fruit - it has been reported they will withstand frosts of -8°C to -10°C but may require some physical protection from frosts or container culture in the colder regions to ensure reliable fruiting. Cooler regions may however have the advantage of producing better-flavoured fruit. Areas with cool winters and long, warm summers are ideal – but too much summer heat can result in split fruit which lacks flavour. I have friends in Canterbury who have a very successful ‘feijoa fenceline’ in suburbia, with the high wooden structure protecting the plants very effectively from southerly blasts and the house protecting them from the easterly wind.
Modern feijoa cultivars (of which there are many) include early, mid and late season types – although they all flower at roughly the same time (November-December), the fruit will ripen at different times. If you live in a colder district, choose early-fruiting varieties to plant.
Site selection and planting
Feijoas prefer fertile, well-drained soils and require reasonable summer moisture levels for fruit formation and to crop well. They will however tolerate stony soils and heavier clays, as long as waterlogging is not an issue with the latter. The feijoa’s thick, shiny, leathery dark-green leaves with silvery-grey undersides are fairly tolerant of salt spray, hence the plants can be a good choice for coastal areas. Trees planted out individually may need shelter from wind, especially in the establishment phase, as branches can snap easily if exposed to strong gusts.
Plant feijoas out from mid-autumn to early spring – the earlier the better, as in autumn there is still some summer heat in the soil to drive plant growth before winter. Feijoa trees planted as a hedge should be spaced a metre apart and allow four to five metres between trees planted individually. Mature feijoa plants will reach small to medium tree status at maturity (3-5 m in height; 2-5 m wide). Grafted or cutting-grown plants will start to produce fruit in their second growing season after planting and should give a crop of 5-6 kg by three years of age, this takes slightly longer with seedlings, which will produce fruit at around five years of age. The harvest season begins conveniently after the grapes and late peaches have finished, from April to June, with a slight variation region by region.
Culture and care
Feijoa trees will respond well to a side-dressing of general fertiliser after planting (start with 250 g per tree in the first year, increasing by another 250 g per tree for every subsequent year of age to a maximum of 5 kg/tree at maturity. Water in well, or apply before forecast rainfall. You can also work 1-2 cups of blood and bone or sheep pellets into the soil at planting if you prefer organic fertilisers.
Consider applying organic mulch or compost around the base of each plant to retain moisture (feijoas are shallow-rooted), but do not allow the material to come in contact with the trunk. As previously mentioned, keep the watering up during summer as the fruit matures five to six months after the flowers are set. A well-cared-for feijoa tree can remain productive for in excess of 30 years!
Most feijoa varieties are self-fertile, so you can get away with planting one tree on a small section. Most will benefit from the presence of another tree, with cross-pollination ensuring a heavier crop and potentially larger-size fruit. A note on pollination – the bright red flowers are actually bird-pollinated. One year I was out in the garden and saw a bunch of blackbirds wreaking havoc in the form of what looked to be large-scale early-season destruction of the feijoa crop. Much shrieking and hand-flapping ensued – only for me to read not long after that yes, birds do eat the petals, but that is all, and they perform the vital process of pollination as they do so. As an aside, feijoa flowers are edible and are said to taste sweet and spicy. I meant to have a nibble on a few yesterdays (Mum’s plants were producing some out-of-season late flowers) but I forgot and so can’t report back on that. Just remember to space your plants out if you want a sizeable crop – birds can’t fly from tree to tree if the branches are all crammed in together. If you plant a feijoa hedge, don’t expect as high yields as you would from individual trees.
Feijoas are fairly easy-care in terms of pruning. They fruit on the new season’s growth - the fresh wood that grows each spring. Give your trees a tickle-up once fruiting is over, by thinning out twiggy branches and removing larger ones from the centre of the tree to allow light, air (and birds!) in. This will stimulate the production of new wood and new growth = more fruit. Those growing feijoas as a hedge can whip out the hedge trimmer and get the job done quick-smart with no ill effects.
Pests, diseases and what to do about them
Leafroller caterpillars, various scale insects (sooty mould is a giveaway sign of their presence) and the leaf-chewing bronze beetle are the main culprits. Try a vegetable or mineral oil-based spray after fruiting in autumn to combat scale and a product such as Yates Success Ultra for leafrollers. Apply according to the label directions.
The relatively new kid on the block in the upper North Island (and making its way south) is Coscinoptycha improbana, the guava moth, also known as the fruit driller moth. Native to Australia, it was first detected in Kaitaia in 1997 and has since marched south to Auckland and Waikato. Gisborne, Nelson and Marlborough are likely in its sights. Feijoas, being closely related to guavas, are prime fodder, but this moth is polyphagous (feeding on more than one type of plant) and is also causing deleterious effects on citrus, stonefruit, nut and some pipfruit crops. The insect spends much of its lifecycle inside the fruit, with the larvae burrowing into the fruit a day after hatching from eggs, largely rendering spray programmes ineffective. With a wide variety of host plants providing year-round breeding conditions in Northland, the home gardener is probably best to resort to netting trees or dare I say it, individually bagging fruit to prevent the adult moths from laying eggs on ripening fruit. Practise good crop hygiene by collecting all fallen fruit and either freeze it to kill the insects or feed it to livestock – don’t compost it, as this gives the insects a chance to complete their life cycle.
A new strain of anthracnose fungus, Colletotrichum theobromicol, has recently been found to cause early fruit drop in more modern feijoa cultivars. Its presence is denoted by purple-black spots on developing fruit and its spread is aided by wet weather. It causes young fruitlets to drop in early-mid summer. Dieback of branches has also been noted.
However, there’s also some good news on the fungal front: the bright yellow myrtle rust (Austropuccinia psidii) affecting plants in the Myrtaceae that arrived in New Zealand in 2017 does not appear to affect feijoas. During the initial response to this incursion, MPI surveyed 5,000 individual feijoa plants in affected areas and did not find a single rust-infected plant. This means feijoas are not subject to myrtle rust control measures and can be freely transported – this is backed up by international observations showing no evidence of infected feijoa plants where the fungus is also present, as well as inoculation experiments where feijoa plants have been deliberately infected with myrtle rust, with no resultant ill-effects.
Varieties: My top picks
You can propagate your own feijoa plants from seed – a fun project for the kids – as well as from semi-hardwood cuttings and by grafting scions of known varieties onto seedling rootstocks. I recommend you eliminate the guesswork, find a few cultivars suited to your climate and purchase ready-grown plants from your local nursery or garden centre. Waimea Nurseries have in-depth information to help you select the right kind here: https://www.waimeanurseries.co.nz/our-products/fruit-trees/feijoas/
What to do with your crop
Let’s face it, if you have a few feijoa trees or a neighbour that does, you will be facing a glut! Recipes abound for jams and chutneys, but there are lots of other options too.
Feijoas bottle really well and produce a delicious, thick syrup in the jar. Top, tail and then peel the fruit using a potato peeler. Use the overflow bottling method from Your Backyard Fruit Bowl: Apricots but use ¾ cup sugar: 3 cups water for the syrup. If you’re making fruit leathers, the slightly gritty texture of feijoas can lead to a dry, cracked leather. Experiment using half to two-thirds the volume of feijoa of stewed apple and/or mashed banana to improve the taste and texture. You can also dehydrate the fruit: slice into rounds 5 mm thick, with the skin on or off according to your taste.
Methods for freezing the fruit vary from person to person – some throw them in whole, others scoop out the pulp and sweeten or add citrus juice before freezing in manageable amounts for cakes and smoothies. Others blend the fruit skin and all, resulting in a very zappy bright green paste.
You can take the good old Edmonds banana cake recipe and substitute mashed feijoa for banana, or try this tongue-tingling winter warmer pudding, which can be made with fresh or preserved feijoas. Use a mixture of apple or pear and feijoas if you don’t have enough feijoas on hand (unlikely!). The topping is chewy and crunchy, if you like things more on the cakey side, including an egg and a little extra flour in the mix.
Feijoa gingerbread pudding
600 g feijoas, fresh unprepared weight or a 500 g (small Agee jar) preserved feijoas
A little water (2-3 tbsp) and sugar to taste (I don’t add any)
Grated zest of one lemon
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/3 cup lightly packed dark brown/muscovado sugar
1 cup plain flour
1 tsp baking soda
60 g butter
160 g golden syrup
Optional - 1 egg and two tablespoons extra flour
Preheat the oven to 180°C
Top and tail the feijoas with a sharp knife, then use a potato peeler to remove the green skin from each fruit. If the feijoas are small, leave them whole, or cut larger fruit in half. Place in a saucepan with the water, lemon zest and a little sugar if desired. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer for about ten minutes or until just tender when poked with a fork. Remove from the heat and spread in the base of a 20 cm diameter round Pyrex baking dish or equivalent size square dish. Allow cooling while you make the cake layer.
Place dry ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl and combine well with a dry whisk. Place the butter and golden syrup in a small saucepan and warm over moderate heat until the butter is melted. Mix well, then pour into the dry ingredients and add the egg (if using).
Spread the cake mixture over the prepared fruit – a few gaps won’t hurt as the mixture will spread during cooking. Bake for 30-45 minutes or until the pudding is risen and puffy and a skewer inserted comes out clean. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.
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/
Feijoa flower - Nicholas Demetriades, via Pixabay
Sliced feijoa fruit – Chesna, via Pixabay
Feijoa fruit – JamstraightUK, via Pixabay