A mango tree expected to bear eight types of mangoes and a tree that will yield both balata and sapodilla. These are some of the innovative offerings of Rajesh Ram and Sadee Sanichar-Ram of the Exotic Fruit Plant Shed in New Grant, Princes Town.
On their one-acre property, the couple grows exotics like rambutan, rollinia, mamey sapote, kumquats and grapes, the plants of which they sell. On February 16 the Rams harvested their first strawberry and divided it into four so their family could taste it.
Their children have always been healthy and well-rounded, thanks to an active outdoor life of planting their own local and exotic fruits and eating them, their mother Sadee smiled as she spoke to Sunday Guardian.
Their son, Rajeev, 24, is a scholarship winner who gained 16 distinctions at CSEC and 20 Grade Is out of his 23 units at CAPE. The Rams' 18-year-old twin girls, Sadia and Samara, are currently in Upper Six and are also doing well.
“Gardening is like a hobby for us. That is how we spend our time; talking, laughing, doing the work as well. It gives us an opportunity to spend quality time as a family,” Sadee said.
Her father liked planting fruit trees and her husband always nurtured a love for fruits, so having a variety of local and exotic fruit plants on their land came naturally.
Her husband said he first set out to source plants for friends who had been fascinated with many of his fruits they had seen and tasted for the first time. He did some courses in grafting and budding and ventured into the exotic fruits business about eight years ago.
The Rams are heavily involved in plant shows of the Eastern and Central Horticultural societies, often being invited to have booths displaying their wide variety of fruits.
“The exotic fruits attract a lot of people because they do not know all the plants that can grow and produce fruit in Trinidad. It's interesting to them,” said Ram who grew up in the countryside.
Their customers also enjoy the fact that they are constantly experimenting with ideas like a single mango tree grafted with eight varieties including Julie, spice, starch and doux doux. Ram said he has sold one capable of bearing three different types of mangoes and is keeping his fingers crossed that his will bear in a year or two before he offers its kind to clients.
It took him several years to gather varieties of exotic seeds from friends, local suppliers and from his travels to the Caribbean and New York. His longan and sapote he acquired in New York. From Belize he got the “craboo” which resembles the doungs/dunks fruit and is used in ice cream there. When customers arrive he is happy to take them around his garden. His doungs trees, mamey sapote, mulberry and many others are currently bearing.
Abiu or Brazilian caimate, was one of the first fruits he planted. With its custardy/vanilla-flavoured inside it became his second favourite fruit. The first time he took it to a show for patrons to sample, one man bought $200 worth.
Ram said his number-one local fruit was rambutan; a spiny fruit, high in vitamin C which turns red on the outside when ripe. It originates from the Philippines and Malaysia and bears around July/August. When cracked open it looks like a peeled grape with a hard jelly inside and tastes better than a grape.
“You can't stop eating it,” he said. His wife agreed, adding that it was high in antioxidants.
Often mistaken for another fruit called “cashima”, Ram pointed out that the rollinia came from a smaller tree but yields a larger yellow fruit belonging to the annona species of fruits like soursop and sugar apple. The white fleshy inside covers the black seeds of the rollinia and it can be eaten raw or made into punches.
There is also the bilimbi, from India, called amrac or one finger as well, which has been in Trinidad for a long time, Ram said. Similar to five fingers, it is very sour and is used to make amchar and chutneys.
They also cultivate wax apples which bear by the thousands and are a seedless relative of the pomerac. Named for their candle wax-like skin, they are slightly sweet and have a watery consistency which makes them ideal for chows and juicing.
The Rams have also sold grapevines which bear a local type of grape that must be pruned often to bear. He said these muscadine grapes are smaller and purple when ripe, with thicker skin. However, grapes to which most people are accustomed require a cool climate, Ram advised, so most people purchase local grape plants as a collector's item or conversation piece, while some possibly use the leaves for Syrian dishes.
According to the mostly self-taught horticulturist, their kumquats, a small citrus, leave a refreshing taste in the mouth. His variegated species have leaves and fruit that are two-toned or multi-toned. Apart from bearing fruits similar to limes, they can be used as striking ornamental plants.
Ram's wife recommended the rough skin lemon used by many first thing on mornings in warm water to cleanse the body. Soursop is also beneficial for its cancer-fighting properties, she shared.
Ram does most of the grafting of his plants, splicing the tender shoot of a mature bearing tree onto the seedling or sapling (young plant). He explained that grafting can be done to make the plant bear quickly (in some cases in less than half the time it would normally take), to get a smaller tree and to clone the species of the mature plant.
Sales of his plants skyrocketed around last April as many sought to start their own gardens in the midst of the initial COVID lockdown, Ram said. One person even inquired whether their newly-purchased plant would bear within the month, Ram laughed.
Since then, besides the regular citrus and avocado, people have been coming in regularly to buy exotics like abiu; grafted sapodilla; grafted balata; jaboticaba (a Brazilian fruit which bears its large grape-like fruits on its tree trunk), and mangosteen which resembles cocoa beans on the inside and has many healing properties. They've also sold gala apple, plum, nectarine and mulberry plants.
Ram felt that since many of these exotic plants originated in tropical countries they are able to grow locally. And having limited space is no problem as many of his customers plant in pots or buckets. He even knows one who has a fully-grown coconut tree in a barrel.
With their seemingly infinite variety of exotic fruit trees and plants, some find it hard to believe that they operate the business part-time, Ram a secondary school principal said. His wife works with the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development.
They also manage to do deliveries, using the long trips as outings and bonding periods, Ram said.
“We pack our food and drinks and chat along the way,” Sadee added.
Through the business, Ram has rediscovered parts of T&T he hasn't seen since childhood. He has had repeated requests to return to Tobago as people are impressed with his range of plants. It's the bonding time and surpassed dream of having a seedling shop that means the most for Sadee.
The couple's greatest joy comes when people try a new fruit and when they contact the Rams to show that their trees are beginning to bear.
Educate people on growing these fruits locally–enthusiast
Chances are most Trinbagonians have never tried a dragon fruit. It's mildly sweet pear-kiwi flavour has, however, won over Dave Mahase and other exotic fruit connoisseurs who are showing an increasing interest in buying, selling, showing off or bartering exotic fruit plants and fruits online. The exotic fruit hobbyist and founder of Exotic Fruit Growers of Trinidad and Tobago on Facebook insisted that there was no need to source such fruits from abroad as they can grow right here in T&T.
What is required is public education about planting rare and exotic fruits locally as they were becoming more and more popular among local consumers, Mahase stressed.
His passion for collecting rare plants or plants that are difficult to grow locally led him to create his exotic fruit growers Fb page about five years ago. It is a platform for people to share plants and ideas regarding their cultivation methods, he said.
Among his prized plants are red dragon fruit; yellow dragon fruit; varieties of cherries; an ancestor of the grapefruit called shaddock; abiu, rambutan, custard apple, wax apple; jackfruit; jaboticaba (a Brazilian fruit similar to grapes); kumquats, vanilla orchids, and black pepper plants.
Grown in his backyard in Plum Mitan, Mahase's harvests of peppercorns when dried and grounded into black pepper, taste just like the normal stuff bought at the supermarket, he beamed. Other people Mahase knows also swear by their vanilla bean extract fermented from vanilla orchid plants in their backyards.
Mahase's dragon fruits bear from cactus-like plants in three varieties and can be grown in pots. They are dubbed a superfood rich in Vitamin C, antioxidants and fibre which promotes a healthy gut.
“It's delicious, refreshing and visually appealing. It's sweet and fleshy, clean on the palate,” said Mahase.
Having garnered over 1,600 members on his page, Mahase who has a passion for sharing and exchanging his harvests and knowledge of exotic fruits said social media has elevated his hobby to a higher potential as he is considering exploring exotic fruit production in the future.
Most fruits boost the immune system and many exotics are high in fibre and antioxidants. Diagnosed with hypertension two years ago, Mahase, 42, said the experience has also brought him improved health. For breakfast he now eats whatever is available in his garden and he has weaned himself off his hypertension medication.
Admitting that some were skeptical of strange and exotic fruit, Mahase felt people who have travelled were more adventurous, with many favouring dragon fruits and the tart but sweet pomegranate.
Encouraging others to plant in buckets or to seek plants that grow vertically if they lack space, he said in addition to reaping delectable fruits, he found deep satisfaction in gardening.
“I just walk through my garden on a morning and that's it right there; I don't need anything. That's my stress reliever, that's my serenity,” he said.