Put Jaboticabas on your List

Written by fruit   // 12/12/2005   // 0 Comments

The fruit with the great taste that makes mighty wine WORDS BY REGINA PARSONS, PHOTOGRAPH BY DIGBY GOTTS

No matter how small your garden, growing at least one jaboticaba(Myrciaria cauliflora) is about the best thing you can do. They are easy to grow, can be tricked into early fruiting, have very few pests, and have a compact growth habit very suited to smaller gardens. They can be counted on to produce one bumper crop and several smaller ones throughout the years.

The jaboticaba is a close relative of our native lilly-pilly, and is a member of the Myrtacea family. Its fruit is cauliflorous – meaning that it is attached directly to the limbs of the tree. So if you are a “new” owner, don’t forget to keep an eye on what fruit might be hiding behind the outer leaves – or you may miss the fruit altogether.

The fruit is purple-black skinned, about the size of a marble, and resembles a muscatel grape. The flesh is white, with a flavour all its own, and clings to the central seed. Some people enjoy eating the skins, while others find them too bitter. The tree can be tricked into flowering after a dry spell, by watering heavily after a light application of fertiliser, if needed. Ample water triggers the tree into producing again – up to six crops a year – depending on area.

If the wine industry had been founded on jaboticabas and we were only now discovering grapes, we would say, “Hey, grapes make as good a wine as jaboticabas.” It also makes an excellent liqueur.
Because it is relatively free from pests, no spraying is needed, so just pop the fresh fruit into your mouth and go from there. The fruit keeps well, either dried or frozen, but as it has a shelf-life of around four days, you are unlikely to ever find it in the shops.

The large-leafed jaboticaba (Myrciaria jaboticaba) is different in habit, insofar as it usually only produces one crop of fruit each year (all our trees, including M. jaboticaba, are currently covered with flowers) These fruit, like the plant’s leaves, are larger than those of M.cauliflora, and are said to be slightly less tasty than the smaller variety. If you are lucky enough to have a glut of fruit, just chuck the excess into the freezer -–there is nothing nicer on a hot summer’s day.

For a completely different taste, there is a yellow fruiting tree called Myciaria glomerate – very nice-tasting fruit but with a different fruiting habit. Although the fruit are much smaller, it is well worth having one of these also growing.

If left unpruned, the jaboticaba will eventually reach a height of 15 metres, but vertical growth is very slow. In the warm sub-tropics, 20 year-old trees that are well fed, unpruned, unirrigated, and in good soil, are only 5 metres high. For the small suburban garden the good news is that this species can be effectively pruned into a shrub and still bear bountiful crops.

In many Australian conditions, seedlings can bear fruit as early as three years after planting, and can be induced to fruit (if taking longer than this) by ring-barking. This can be done when the tree is over a metre high (3-4 years old), by randomly cincturing the odd limb. This ringbarking disturbs the natural flow of plant hormones causing treated limbs to throw out flowers and fruit. August is a good month for your first attempt. Jaboticabas have an extraordinary ability to heal over such wounds, so don’t be fearful.

The jaboticaba naturally occurs next to stream banks as a second storey tree beneath the canopy. In culture, it thrives on a bountiful supply of water and its bumper spring crop is initiated by the first reliable rainfalls after winter.

Like almost all fruit trees, you must feed jaboticabas well if you want good crops. It tolerates light frosts and the rare black one, too. As the species naturally occurs in the shade, when planted in full sun the new leaves turn yellow, as if nutrient-deficient. This is a negative reaction to the sun, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot be positioned in full sun. As the new leaves are shaded by the later growth, they turn their typical green and, with age, the whole plant gets sun-tough.

Another problem to watch out for is that the tree goes “skeletal”, as if deficient in phosphorous. The fix is to cut the tree right back (use a chainsaw if necessary) and presto – the tree coppices into one splendid, healthy specimen.

The biggest pest is birds, but if you don’t want to share your crop there is no easier plant to cover with bird netting. Jaboticabas are not stung by fruit fly.

Jaboticabas can be successfully grown throughout much of Australia, and it is a tree that gives back much more than the space it occupies. If you don’t already have at least one, put it on your urgent shopping list.

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