Ripe look at fruit

After moving to North Carolina from South Florida 3 years ago, I kept asking myself: Where are the fruit trees?

In Florida it's not uncommon for a home garden to include a citrus, mango or avocado tree, if not a small fruit orchard. After living for seven years nearer to the equator, I had assumed it normal for a homestead to produce its own fruit salad. My tropical orchard yielded litchis, loquats, star fruit, pineapples, passion fruit and a dozen varieties of banana.

In North Carolina I had expected to encounter a new world of apples, pears, peaches, persimmons and pawpaws. But aside from the occasional fig, a backyard fruit tree is a rarity here.

Now I know why. South Florida lies at the epicenter of an exotic underworld of fruit collectors, fruit robbers, fruit speculators, fruit inventors, fruitaholics, fruitarians and fruit acolytes -- all of whom populate the pages of Adam Leith Gollner's lively new book, "The Fruit Hunters." Gollner treks the globe in search of this human genotype, visiting the world's fruitiest locations: Brazil, Thailand, Borneo, Bali, Cameroon. In this country he catches up with the Rare Fruit Council International and the North American Fruit Explorers. He checks in with fruit breeders on the West Coast and pops into the world's largest apple germ plasm repository in Geneva, N.Y.

This global survey brings together a literary cornucopia of fruit that no single person has ever tasted in a lifetime. Gollner savors mythical fruit, forbidden fruit and fruit that is thought to be extinct. American grocery store produce sections offer just a handful of fruit varieties that are bred for homogeneity and durability and profit. But a single fruit can come in hundreds, if not thousands, of named varieties that are vastly superior in taste, though unavailable to shoppers. To wit: There are some 5,000 cataloged cultivars of pears, a remarkable feat for a fruit that was deemed pretty much inedible in its raw state until only a few centuries ago. All the while, collectors are rediscovering heritage and heirloom fruit varieties that have been neglected and forgotten, while breeders are creating ever new varieties with a keen eye toward hitting the genetic jackpot.

Gollner's book is a vast compendium, complete with a four-page bibliography of fruit studies, monographs and research. But it's hardly exhaustive. He barely mentions North America's largest tree fruit, the pawpaw, a spud-sized custardy delicacy favored by indigenous Indians and beloved by George Washington. He makes no mention of the Southeastern citrus aficionados who are successfully growing cold-hardy mandarins, citrumelos, citranges, cintrangequats and cintrandarins. I have seen 50 citrus trees thriving in a private collection in Cary. With global warming on their side, these enthusiasts may well succeed in one day converting abandoned tobacco fields into citrus orchards.

Gollner is a swashbuckling travel writer with a yen for adventure and high jinks. He revels in describing fruit that comes in priapic, callipygian and other anatomical shapes. He writes of a leading South Florida fruit explorer and nurseryman whose property was raided by an armed squadron of federal agents in search of illegally smuggled seeds. The pages drip with overripe, rich, oozy prose that cloys the senses. Here is a market scene in Bangkok: "This is the raw, cutting odor of the jungle, the gash of the tropics, the fetor of equatorial darkness, the essence of everything Western civilization glosses over, dyes and tries not to think about." Compare that to apples preserved in cold storage: "With an atmosphere similar to Neptune's, these warehouses are the sort of gelid death chambers befitting Walt Disney's head."

Grocery store produce departments specialize in ordinary and insipid selections that rightfully offend the palate of a connoisseur. Commercial fruit are refrigerated, soaked, irradiated, gassed and waxed into a perfectly unblemished uniform state of antiseptic sterility. The Plasticine harvest of America's retail chain utopia is available year-round, a marvel of modern marketing known in the produce trade as a "permanent global summertime." But don't blame artificial breeding for this state of affairs, for meddlesome humans are the key to guaranteeing a fruit's survivability. In their natural state, bananas, apples, peaches and many other commercial fruit barely resembled the varieties we know today. They were small, tough, seedy, astringent or fibrous and often unfit for human consumption, unless cooked and mashed and sweetened.

Breeders are continually tinkering with nature. The most important fruit hybridizer in modern times, Floyd Zaiger in California, has already invented the delicious pluot by crossing a plum with an apricot. He has also bred an aprium (apricot + plum), peach-plums, nectaplums, peacotums and peacharines. His next task: creating a Bing cherry the size of a plum. But it bears keeping in mind that Zaiger's raw materials are cherries, plums, apricots and peaches that are themselves the unlikely products of hundreds of years of unnatural selection, through human intervention.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer