Orchard Trees of Rancho Los Cerritos: Guavas

By: Marie Barnidge-McIntyre

Marie Barnidge-McIntyre is the staff horticulturist for Rancho Los Cerritos in Long Beach, California, and did the majority of the…

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Strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum).Author's photographs

Strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum). Author’s photographs

Julia Morton writes in Fruits of Warm Climates that guava (Psidium guajava) is a gregarious fruit tree that “has been cultivated by man, birds, and sundry four-footed animals for so long that its place of origin is uncertain.” She narrowed its origin to southern Mexico and Central America. Guava was introduced to Florida in 1847 and to California about the same time. William Wolfskill was growing it in his orchards in Los Angeles by 1850.

This tropical species thrives in high humidity but does surprisingly well in arid climates, as long as it gets plenty of water. It will not tolerate frost, nor does it thrive in the extremely hot conditions of California’s interior valleys, yet it bears the largest crops when there are defined seasons. Such a narrow range limited commercial production of the tropical guava in California. In the 1920s, a Mr Popenoe and others were developing promising cultivars, but for a limited local market.

Where introduced in the tropics, guava has become an invasive pest, forming dense thickets called guayabales. Wild seedlings or not, the fruit is harvested and is a major crop in Mexico, South America, Asia, Africa, and on tropical islands around the world.

The flower flaunts its membership in the myrtle family (Myrtaceae) with five white petals and a multitude of protruding stamens, each less than an inch long. The autumn fruit is round to pear shaped and up to four inches in diameter, with leathery sepals at the outer end. Pale yellow, sometimes with a pink blush when ripe, the thin-skinned fruit is easily bruised and highly fragrant, with a characteristic fruity, musky scent. Directly beneath the skin is a wall of flesh that can be white-to-red and is distinctly granular. At the heart of the fruit is a darker, juicier pulp holding dozens of hard seeds; these are best-swallowed whole—unless you enjoy dental restoration! High in pectin, the fruit is a natural for preserves as well as nectars and syrups; it is also eaten fresh. If the graininess is not to your liking, the stone cells can be crushed in a special mill or removed with a centrifuge. As both methods require special machinery, the grit tends to be served intact. A dried paste called “guava cheese” is sold in bricks and sliced as a popular sweet treat.

Tropical guava (Psidium guajava)

Tropical guava (Psidium guajava)

Both bark and leaves of this species are harvested for use in tanning hides. The leaves also produce a black dye that is used on various textiles, ranging from Malaysan silks to Asian cotton.

The astringent and antiseptic qualities of almost all parts of the plant have led to a variety of medicinal uses. It can be taken internally to treat digestive issues, including diarrhea and cholera, and for coughs and respiratory problems; as a decoction, it can also be applied externally for treating skin sores.

Tropical guavas were the final two trees that Ralph Cornell designed into the Bixbys’ primary orchard at Rancho Los Cerritos in 1931. Both white- and pink-fleshed fruit were available, but catalogs did not guarantee the color of the seedlings they sold. They listed them as “Lemon Guavas,” and that was how Cornell referred to them.

When we replanted the two tropical guavas, I chose one pink- and one white-fleshed seedling. Cornell’s plan had located them on the south side of the old adobe house, where the reflected heat from the winter sun protected them from Long Beach’s occasional frosts. The leaves exhibit red to purple tones following a frost, but we have thus far not suffered any dieback. The crops are abundant, though the fruits tend to be modest in size, probably due to inadequate thinning.

Strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum)

Strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum)

Strawberry Guava

The Rancho Los Cerritos orchard is laid out in a typical grid pattern, between the top of the drive and the house. To soften the rigidity of the rows and strengthen the curving line of the drive, Cornell planted a hedge of forty subtropical guavas along the outer perimeter. A brilliantly simple design, the three-foot hedge allows a view of the orchard while directing traffic along the curve.

The hedge is made up of two variants of subtropical guavas native to Brazil—one red and one yellow. These guavas were available in California and were listed in several nurseries by 1870. With significantly less musk and a sweeter flavor, strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) became popular. Smaller in both flower and fruit than the tropical guava, the end product is round and one inch in diameter, but possesses the same leathery sepals, hard seeds, and grainy texture. When ripe, the fruits are so deep a burgundy as to be nearly black.

By 1893, California had several acres planted for commercial production. That was when a striking variant was observed. The fruit was a bit larger, slightly sweeter, and yellow. By the turn of the century, ranchers in San Diego were cultivating the yellow strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum var. lucidum).

By the time these fruits were planted at Rancho Los Cerritos in 1931, the commercial demand had fallen; only twenty acres of guavas were listed for the whole state, and, by the 1950s, only five acres remained under commercial cultivation. The popularity of the fruit, however, was great enough to ensure its availability so homeowners could continue to plant these tasty guavas as trees or hedges.

Allowed to develop into a tree, strawberry guava can reach ten to twenty feet tall, while the yellow variety reaches thirty feet. Both exhibit a lovely peeling bark that gives the trunk a multi-hued appearance. They are easily maintained as a hedge or espalier, which makes harvesting easier. As they flower on new wood, shearing will reduce the fruit production, but a fair crop can still be harvested. The fruits are more exposed on a hedge, where extreme heat will sunburn them or cause them to drop. Cornell specified twenty each of “red and yellow” strawberry guavas for the Bixbys’ hedge around the primary orchard.

The pink form of tropical guava (Psidium guajava)

The pink form of tropical guava (Psidium guajava)

Fruit was a major component of the gardens at Rancho Los Cerritos, beginning with the first formal gardens of John Temple’s residency in the 1840s. Cornell’s design for the Bixbys’ estate in 1931 extended plantings of fruit beyond the main orchard. The backyard included a secondary orchard (not yet restored), and numerous desirable fruits were integrated throughout the gardens. Many of these trees are still producing, while those that have succumbed are being replaced whenever possible. Each tree has a story to tell, and I have enjoyed sharing the stories of the Rancho’s orchard with readers of Pacific Horticulture.