Who doesn’t like easy fruit growing? Especially in these days of changing climates, we look for edible plants that can withstand extremes. So the pepino (Solanum muricatum), known also as melon pear, is just the thing. It has been widely known in South America where it originated, but it took quite a while to get into Australian gardens. One of its big advantages is that it is a bushy shrub which persists from year to year in temperate regions and produces fruit for many months – even the whole year in warmer areas.
Strictly speaking, we should refer to it as Pepino dulce (sweet pepino) to distinguish it from the Spanish for cucumber which is just pepino. As you can tell from the botanical name, it is a member of the family Solanaceae and is, therefore, related to potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants.
The bush produces clusters of purple and white flowers, which look like those of the potato, at the end of stems. Although self-fertile, fruiting will be enhanced by the presence of bees. Pepinos produce very pale green fruit which, as they grow larger and mature, develop purple stripes. At maturity the purple stripes are still there but the yellow becomes much darker.
Like most fruit and veggies, it does best in a well-drained soil with a pH of 6.5 – 7.5. It helps to supply plenty of compost or worm castings, but steer clear of manures or other fertilisers which have higher nitrogen content in relation or potassium or phosphorus if you want to encourage fruiting rather than leaf growth. Since the roots are quite shallow, they have moderate water requirements, so keep the ground well mulched in summer. It will grow in a variety of climates, but although it prefers warmth, it will withstand short periods around 0°C if cut right back after fruiting and covered during frosts. Although they are susceptible to pests which attack tomatoes, in my hands at least, they don’t seem to suffer much from pest problems.
A trellis of some kind is usually necessary to stabilise the bush against strong winds and support the branches which grow quite heavy with fruit and, if left to trail on the ground, make an accessible and attractive meal for any wandering rodents. Just tie the branches to the support as they grow. One bush will spread to about 1 metre high and wide. As it grows, it is best to remove some of the shoots, especially those that point away from the trellis, so that plenty of air and light reach all parts of the bush. If you want to propagate pepinos, cuttings strike easily and branches will produce roots if they are touching ground. They can be grown from seed, but resulting plants may not be the same as the parent. At least 8 varieties which differ in their size, taste and texture are available in California, but not so many seem to be available in Australia.
Using the fruit
Don’t be tempted to harvest fruit before they are really yellow since they won’t have acquired full sweetness. Ripe flesh is a very pale yellow-orange in colour. Pick the ripest fruit in the cluster, and the others will continue to mature. Handle carefully since they bruise easily. They can be stored on the kitchen bench for several days, or in the refrigerator for several weeks provided the temperature is not below 5° C.
Since they taste like rockmelon/honeydew melon with a hint of cucumber flavour they can be used in deserts or in savoury dishes. The skin is not normally eaten, although it can be. They make useful additions to fruit salads and can be turned into sweet sauces and chutneys. Try wrapping slices in prosciutto, mixing cubes with yoghurt or tossing in with lemon juice in savoury salads.
A versatile fruit!
Baxter P. and Tankard G. Growing fruit in Australia. 1990. MacMillan, Australia.
California Rare Fruit Growers. www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/pepino.html.