By Robin Y. Rivet, for Let’s Talk Plants! October 2023.
Imagine Eating a Rose?
No kidding. Tasting a rose apple should be on every horticulturist’s bucket list.
Although the vaguely drab, outside appearance of the pale skin belies the rare treasure inside, imagine biting into a uniquely crispy and sweet, but intensely rose-scented, apricot-hued drupe? QUICK TIP: It may not look that enticing as you raise it toward your lips, but then catch that heady perfume – and it’s quickly mind-boggling. As the fruit ripens on the tree, the inner seed cavity shrinks, and the seed often rattles inside – a clue it’s ready for fresh eating. Should its juiciness become slightly dehydrated, the rose fragrance just intensifies - lingering on the nose like a fine wine, while the slightly chewy, drier flesh can amplify the distinctive rose flavor. No, this is NOT a rosehip.
Thankfully, rose apple fruits (Latin name Syzygium jambos), aren’t plucked from thorny canes either. They grow on elegant, lush and tidy, 20’-30’ tall evergreen trees, which yield abundant harvests on spineless branches. Native to Southeast Asia, they were widely introduced across many continents for their ornamental and edible value. In Hawaii, it’s called ʻōhiʻa loke, because it visually resembles their ubiquitous Metrosideros polymorpha or ‘Ōhi‘a lehua; a native Hawaiian tree that is quick to emerge after fresh lava flows. After migrating to warm-weather parts of the Americas, rose apples unfortunately became a little too successful in Hawaii, (where they are now considered an invasive plant); but that’s not so in our drier Southern California region. Although apparently there are numerous cultivars with variations of fruit color, in San Diego specimens are seedling grown, and just called “rose apples.”
That said, the “rose apple tree,” is not related to roses or apples. Presumably, fragrance influenced the rose moniker, and perhaps the crispy, spongy-like flesh reminded someone of an apple. Regardless of name, externally it does resemble a guava, but taxonomically it’s lineage is the Myrtaceae family, well known in our Mediterranean region for pineapple guava, strawberry guava, eucalyptus, myrtle, melaleuca, and Agonis flexuosa - our similarly attractive and aromatic peppermint tree. The shiny dark-green foliage of S. jambos also shares some characteristics with Syzygium australe – the once popular brush cherry or “eugenia spp.” seen in many hedges of San Diego County. Gratefully, the destructive eugenia psyllid - does not attack rose apple. Although the uniquely aromatic drupe is cause enough to covet this tree, its showy inflorescence ices the cake. Before morphing into a perfumed, bite-sized orb, the flowers are magnificent, 2”- 4” clusters of hundreds of whitish-colored stamens that attract nectar-loving insects. Just one more reason to love this tree. Plus, the fruit is sturdy enough to pick by the handful and nibbled by young children, and despite being somewhat perishable, this species would be great for a school or community garden, since they’re not really messy, ripen over a long period, and withstand heat of late summer and early fall. It’s large enough to provide shade, but it’s not an overpowering or thirsty tree. Combine those traits with Myrtaceae vigor, wide local adaptability, shiny evergreen foliage, and extremely showy white flowers, and you might decide that this species could be a candidate as a “near perfect” tree in our urban spaces.
I’m often asked, “What’s your favorite tree?” And I respond, “Who’s your most-loved child?”
Just don’t ask. But this one comes close.