Plant Palette

Plant Palette


Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture

Ideas for my articles sometimes come from unusual sources. The idea for this week's article definitely qualifies as unusual.

If any of you have joined in on the current Facebook craze, you may be one of millions that play the game Farmville offered on Facebook. In this game, you manage a virtual farm, planting crops and trees and tending animals.

One of the trees you can plant is a starfruit tree. Friends asked me if there really was such a thing.

The answer is yes, there really is such a thing as a starfruit tree. It's not an imaginary Farmville creation. That said, it's not likely that you would find one growing on a farm in Illinois.

Starfruit, also known as carambola, is the fruit of the tree Averrhoa carambola. This tree is native to Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka. It is cultivated for its fruit in tropical parts of the world. In the United States, starfruit is grown in south Florida and Hawaii.

The starfruit tree is a broad tree that branches close to the ground, giving it a shrubby appearance. It can reach heights of up to thirty feet, but it can be pruned to keep it from getting too large. Those that live in more tropical locations have the luxury of using this plant in the landscape.

While the starfruit tree cannot tolerate soggy soils, it does require at least 70 inches of rainfall per year. Trees begin producing fruit at four or five years of age and a mature tree can produce 200 to 400 pounds of fruit each year.

As the name starfruit suggests, the fruits are star shaped. Fruits are up to six inches long and about three to four inches wide with angled walls along its length. Slicing the fruit in cross-section reveals the star shape, the source of the name starfruit.

A ripe starfruit is yellow with some light green. The edges of the angled sides will be brown, and the fruit will feel firm, not mushy. Avoid fruits that are solid yellow with brown spots, as this is a sign of being overripe.

All parts of the starfruit are edible, including the waxy skin. Flavor descriptions of this extremely juicy fruit include similarities to apple, kiwifruit, pineapple, papaya, orange and grapefruit.

Starfruit are great sources of antioxidants and Vitamin C. But the fruit contains compounds that may be harmful to people with kidney problems and compounds in the fruit may interfere with some medicines. If you are taking medications or have kidney problems, consult with your doctor before consuming starfruit.

I've tried starfruit and found it very tasty. It is a nice addition to fruit salad and it is unusual enough that it will kick an average dish up a notch or two. It didn't take playing Farmville to get me to eat it, but if you or your children play Farmville, this is a chance to bring part of the virtual farm into reality by trying starfruit.

There has been some criticism of Farmville in the news saying that it distorts people's perception of how long it takes crops to grow. Typically crops in this game take from less than one day to four days to mature—clearly a lot faster than real life.

In my opinion, at least the game exposes people to the reality that crops have to be grown somewhere. I once had a high school student ask me what I studied in graduate school, and I told her I worked on sweet corn breeding. She replied that she knew "all about sweet corn, my mom buys it, it comes in a can." My heart sank. Further conversation revealed she had no idea the sweet corn that "came from a can" really came from a plant. Unfortunately, this student is not all that unusual anymore.

I'm hopeful that with people asking me about whether some of the crops in Farmville are real they might be inclined to purchase and actually eat one of those fruits or vegetables when they see them in the store. I would consider that a huge success in people realizing that we all have a link to the farm, even if we where we live is more like the city.

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