Know your pitahaya from your anona

Often the result of 20 years of research, exotic fruit thrives here.

Cherimoya fruit (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Cherimoya fruit
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Every so often, another new and exotic fruit appears in the market. Where do these sweet and colorful strangers come from? If you’re worried they’re imported fruit with a big carbon footprint behind them, be assured: The litchis, dragon fruit and carambolas aren’t travelers. They’re home-grown, newly adopted family members.
The passion-fruit vines that flourish in Israeli gardens look so at home, it seems like the plant has always grown here. But originally, the Israel Exotic Fruit Association brought it from South America, developed a tasty strain of the fruit and supplied plant nurseries with it. The association is responsible for developing most of Israel’s nonnative fruit. It’s a group of 150 to 170 volunteer members from all over Israel and of all ethnicities, all devoted to introducing new fruit to Israel. The association works closely with the Volcani Research Institute and the agricultural faculty of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.
Avi Almogi, long-time member and recently retired director of the association, says that growing exotic fruit in Israel isn’t a new thing.
“The association is over 20 years old. Our aim is to encourage farmers to grow more and different varieties locally.”
Asked how foreign trees and plants are made to thrive in Israel’s tiny space, Almogi answers that the country has enough microclimates to grow almost all fruit, except for those that demand extreme temperatures.
Growing them is a long process.
A new fruit on the supermarket shelf may represent 10 to 20 years of research and work in nursery greenhouses.
“We take fruit whose natural habitat isn’t Israel, and work to acclimate them so that they thrive in Israel’s soil and climate,” Almogi explains.
“For example, passion fruit. The original vines we received gave small, sour fruit. Working with the Volcani Institute, who conducted the research, we developed a juicy, sweet strain.”
Anyone who relishes cheesecake topped with a passion-fruit glaze now knows a little more about what they’re eating. Avocados are another example of the association’s work. It seems hard to believe that once avocados were unknown in Israel. Now, we eat several kinds of avocados, scions of Mexican and Guatemalan strains. Israel exports them to Europe as well.
Almogi says, “Export isn’t so important to us. We want to get the Israeli public interested, and get people to grow new fruit. In general, we aim to make all of a Israel one big research facility. The farther the new fruit are dispersed, the easier to find out where they grow best.”
Moshe Kaliski, present director of the association, says, “There are fruit that have been here for 100 years. A strain of apricots brought over from Russia, the Mustakawi, is one. Arab farmers cultivated it, and it’s been here ever since. There’s a grape variety called Isabella. No one knows how it came to be here.”
Trees from abroad must be put in quarantine, where they’re isolated while undergoing inspection and treatment. When a worker finishes treating the plant, he changes into fresh clothes to avoid any chance of bringing undetected foreign pests to established plants. Some farmers and nursery owners have their own quarantine sheds.
“Israel used to have groves of pecan trees,” says Kaliski. “Most of them were destroyed by some foreign bug. Our sabras now are suffering from new pests because someone brought in contaminated produce. Another problem we have is kaffir limes, which are highly susceptible to diseases. Kaffir limes are prohibited in Israel, but Thai workers smuggle them in.”
I visited an exotic fruit nursery belonging to Dror Ohad, second-generation farmer and member of the association.
Located in a quiet street in suburban Hod Hasharon, the house on 59 Sharett Street looks like any other, but for a sign reading “Exotic Fruit Nursery. Self-Service 24 Hours a Day.”
Driving up to the back, we notice a side garden with an immense mango tree where huge, purple-red fruit hangs. A watchful German shepherd dog lies on the house steps. We stop next to some sheds and a refrigerator.
Self-service indeed; a price list hangs down over a post box, and another sign directs buyers to take the fruit he wants from the refrigerator and leave payment in the box. This place is under camera surveillance, reads another sign, but you get the feeling that it’s only for show.
“It works,” says Ohad. “People come at all hours and they all pay.”
I sit down with him at a table set under a leafy tree, where he offers ice-cold water and splits open a luscious dragon fruit as a snack. Ohad, 50, has spent his life in the nursery and groves established by his father in 1957.
“My father studied horticulture in the US. He established the nursery when he returned to Israel. We have seven square kilometers of exotic trees besides the nursery. I’ve always loved the trees and plants. When I finished my army service, I returned here and stayed. This has been my university, and I learn something new here every day. My father is retired now, and I run the business.”
Ohad’s philosophy lines up easily with the aims of the Exotic Fruit Association.
“I grow sub-tropical trees and plants that thrive in the local climate, trees that any gardener can grow easily. For example, we have a Mexican cherry that grows well in central Israel. It’s small, but sweet and juicy.”
He answers about the challenges in growing exotic fruit trees here.
“The Mediterranean fly is the greatest threat to the trees,” says Ohad.
“Our fruit isn’t organic, but we spray very little. We use a modified pesticide that drips towards the tree root. We also cover the fruit with nets, which deters bugs. Any home gardener can do that.”
Ohad takes me on a walk through his nursery. Under the net roof are hundreds of trees and fruit-bearing vines and shrubs in pots, set out in rows to make alleys where a worker may circulate. Ohad, showing and naming the plants, stops in the middle of a sentence. He’s noticed one thirsty plant among dozens of others and waters it right away. The trees are truly raised by hand in this small, local site.
I recognize a mulberry sapling with leaves as large as dinner plates. How big can the fruit of such a tree grow, we asked.
“It’s the Pakistani mulberry,” Ohad says, “and the fruit can grow this big.”
He holds thumb and forefinger about eight centimeters apart. Here are persimmon saplings, there are Thai wampee fruit and to our surprise, a raspberry vine that thrives in central Israel. Litchis, pitahaya, acerola, feijoa, macadamia nut, anona, sapota, Rio Grande cherries from Brazil, jujube, strawberry guava and many more varieties are waiting in their containers for transplanting.
From pungent jackfruit that can grow to weigh 50 kg. to the tiny, sweet acerola, this nursery offers the possibility of growing exotic fruit in your own garden or balcony. And it’s only one of several such devoted to the same goal in Israel.
The Israel Exotic Fruit Association (English page): Fruit/en/Forms/Article/HomePage.aspx
Ohad Exotic Fruit Tree Nursery: 050- 552-9569 or