photography by alana patterson

Inside an Exotic Fruit Forest—in Vancouver

I grow Chilean guava, goji berries and even a famed Shakespearean fruit in my backyard
Christina Chung

May 31, 2024

When I was growing up in Vancouver, my parents had a flowering quince shrub in their backyard. It had bright pink coral flowers and thorny stems. I picked off the fruit thinking it was an apple, but it tasted tart, like an unripe plum. That was a core memory for me.

Quince trees produce a tart fruit usually made into jams, jellies, and other preserves

My parents grew a lot of ornamental flowers, like petunia and daisies, and I always helped out. We even have Camcorder footage of me shovelling soil into a wheelbarrow. But gardening wasn’t something I ever considered professionally until 2016. It was Mother’s Day and I was on maternity leave from my job in IT when I realized I didn’t want to go back to work. My husband asked me if there was something I wanted to explore, and the answer came to me instantly: plants.

Western trumpet honeysuckle, native to the Pacific Northwest, produces trailing vines that can climb up to 18 feet

I applied to the Horticulture Training Program at UBC Botanical Garden that year, where I got my hands dirty learning how to work with plants. After graduating in 2017, I became the program’s coordinator and created a course in small-scale urban food growing. Until then, I had only gardened in the more traditional way, with raised beds and neat rows of plants, but I was hearing a lot of buzz around food forests, which are self-sustaining gardens that mimic natural ecosystems. So I built one in my front-yard garden. First, I spent a year and a half hand-pulling weeds and using cover crops like winter rye and buckwheat to improve the soil and reduce invasive species. I didn’t use any chemicals. Now it’s a lush space filled with reliable flowering perennials such as white native yarrow, catmint, anise hyssop, lupin and chives; raised beds made of metal and cedar; and an eight-by-12-foot greenhouse where I grow seedlings and more sensitive plants. One of my favourite spots in the garden is along the dry and sunny front path, where I grow creeping thymes and other low-water plants that flower pinks, purples, and whites for the bees. My son loves to sit there and watch his insect friends.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I looked into growing edible plants that aren’t your standard beans and tomatoes. Some people say you should mainly grow native plants because they usually require less maintenance and water. By creating a habitat that mirrors the local ecosystem, gardeners can also support native wildlife and insect populations. I get that, but the selfish part of me wants to explore the world through special plants. Tasting something that someone in South America grew up with excites me. I like flavours you can’t find in the grocery store. In 2020, I bought a greenhouse so I could experiment with plants that needed extra protection from Vancouver’s elements. 

The goji berry plant, shown here in bloom, produces tart, red berries usually found in dried form

One of my grandfathers practised traditional Chinese medicine, and my other grandfather owned an herbal shop in Hong Kong, so I wanted to grow plants they used. I started off with a goji berry plant my dad gave me. Goji is a showy plant with a big, beautiful harvest, and it’s quite easy to grow. I tried a small plant out in full sun—it’s in the same family as tomatoes and peppers, so I thought it would like the heat—but it developed a powdery mildew. I moved the plant to the back garden where the temperature and light are more consistent, and it’s thrived since then. The fresh berries taste nothing like their packaged counterparts in stores. They’re sweet, juicy and less bitter than the dried gojis. 

Sansho pepper, also known as Japanese prickly ash, produces grape-like peppers with a citrusy taste

Since then I’ve grown an assortment of oddball plants, including buck’s-horn plantain, a perennial leafy green, using seeds I bought from Small Island Seed Co. It’s native to Europe and cold-hardy, but I wasn’t sure how much coldness it could tolerate, so I threw a piece of burlap on top to protect it. Now that it’s grown, I love the unique look of its narrow, antler-shaped leaves, as well as its texture and buttery flavour. It’s great in salads.

Mashua, a tuber native to the Andes mountains in South America, grows well close to the B.C. coast

Another fruit I love is the Chilean guava. It’s a lovely little shrub that grows decently well in Vancouver with protection. Most of the unique plants I grow are subtropical as opposed to tropical, so they usually make it through the winter in the greenhouse, where I use a heater to keep the temperature above 10 degrees Celsius. To protect the plants, I will either put them in the greenhouse or cover them with anything I can get my hands on—mulch, leaves, straw or creating a little structure using sticks and burlap covered with a tarp if there’s heavy snow or wind. I purchased my guava plant from Phoenix Perennials on the lower mainland, though they’re starting to become more widely available at garden centres. It looks like a small red blueberry but tastes like a spicy medicinal cotton candy, almost like a minty strawberry. I eat the fruit raw.

Medlar, native to Persia, is another rare plant I grow. Shakespeare mentioned it in Romeo and Juliet as a sexual innuendo because of its, in his words, “open-arse” shape. To harvest a medlar, you wait until the tree drops its leaves to reveal these rock-hard, brown knobs, which are the fruits. You take the fruits indoors into a cool, dry place so they undergo a process called bletting. They’re ready to eat when they turn very soft and you smell a spicy apple cinnamon scent. When you open them up, they look like rotten fruit, but you can eat them raw or cook them down into a jammy sauce. They taste like applesauce with a hint of cinnamon.

My Schisandra vines are waking up now. I grew up knowing it as a “five-flavour berry” and it’s used in traditional Chinese medicine and to flavour all sorts of Asian products. First you taste something sweet, then bitterness explodes on your tongue. It’s unique. 

Lupin, a legume, begins producing colourful flowers in the spring

Not everything I’ve planted has tasted amazing, though. Gardeners say Good King Henry is a spinach alternative, but I disagree. Its leaf coating gives it a strange, gritty taste. Malabar spinach is another one that’s not going to make it into my garden again. It had a weird, too-fleshy texture. 

Not all my plants successfully grow, either. Last year, I stubbornly planted a peach tree. Although they’re far from exotic, these trees don’t do well in my rainforest region. Many people who have apricots, peaches and other stone fruits in Vancouver need to put up some sort of shelter to protect the buds from rain during the early part of the year. Otherwise they’re susceptible to fungal disease, which I’m seeing on the leaves of my peach tree right now. Since then, I’ve tried to be more strategic and realistic, and put in a lot of time and effort to choose plants that like the cold, wet soil B.C. gardeners have in the winter. 

Horseradish is a cold-hardy perennial, shown here beside a tray of baby kale

At the same time, drought-tolerant planting is a huge conversation happening in the gardening community. The temperature went up to 42 degrees Celsius a few years ago in the heat dome. Many people saw their raspberries literally cook on the plant; the fruits all blistered and turned white. I’m looking to my friends in California to see which plants do well in a dry Mediterranean coastal climate. Pineapple guava is one. I’m reframing these new circumstances as an opportunity to research new plants.

I’m currently preparing the garden to plant Cornelian cherry, which I sourced from my friend Todd, a fellow rare-plant nerd who I met through Instagram last year. I got two plants because they benefit from having another Cornelian cherry to cross-pollinate with. Cherry is a bit of a misnomer; it’s actually a type of dogwood and tastes more like juicy, tart plums. The plants have already fruited in containers, so I’m putting them into the ground now. Hopefully, once they establish themselves over the next couple years, I’ll get more fruit.

A tray of seedlings sits outside Christina’s greenhouse. Behind it is a rhododendron bush, and to the right of it is a medlar shrub.

The most rewarding part about growing unusual plants is not the harvest. I’m not getting pounds and pounds of fruit from these oddball plants. What I really enjoy is sharing what I learn on my Instagram and TikTok, When I feature a plant from another region in the world, a lot of people who recognize it will share their stories about how their families make puree out of it or turn the pulp into a dessert. Once, I took a Tupperware of goji berries to my doctor during an appointment, because I know she’s into alternative medicine. She recommends people to eat goji berries all the time because of their antioxidant properties, but she’d never had fresh ones before. As I was leaving, she said, “This is amazing, I never knew they tasted like this.” I love that my plants spark conversations like this. Not only do I learn a lot about different cultures, too, but growing rare or plants from other parts of the world also helps me as a gardener feel better informed on how to take care of plants.

—As told to Isabel B. Slone