Sunday, May 27, 2007


Avocado fruits are among the more expensive fruits in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The fruits are imported from Australia and sold in supermarkets to expatriates and to the few locals who have acquired a taste for them. The majority of Malaysians and Singaporeans think avocadoes are awfully bland, or just plain awful.

However, in the Malaysian state of Sabah, close to the Philippines, where there is a large population of immigrants from the Philippines, avocadoes are cheap, locally grown, and sold by roadside hawkers. The quality, size and shape of the locally-grown fruits is very variable.

The avocado is native to tropical America, and was introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish in the 1600s. The Philippinos have had 400 years to learn to love the fruit, but according to Burkill's Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula, it was not love at first sight.

The Indonesians got their first taste in the 1700s. They have learnt to love the fruits, and blend it with palm sugar to make a rich nutritious drink.

Avocados were introduced to Malaysia and Singapore by the British in the late 1800s. British rubber planters often had an avocado or two growing in their bungalow gardens.

In all the books on growing avocados, we are told that single trees will not fruit because they need cross-pollination by another tree. The trees in Malaysia ignore this rule. Single trees often produce good crops of fruits. However, after having experimented with avocados for over 30 years, I can say they are extremely variable in behaviour. I have seen trees begin to fruit at 5 years, trees that did not fruit until after 10 years, trees that never fruited at all in 20 years. Fruits vary in size, shape, colour, smoothness / roughness of the skin, thickness of the flesh, quality of the flesh (creamy, lumpy, etc). A lot of work will have to be done in testing and selection before we can have a good reliable clone for our particular climatic and soil conditions.

To grow an avocado it is best to use a seed from a tree that is proven locally (e.g. known to produce abundant fruit of good quality at an early age). Seeds from another country may produce healthy trees but such trees are likely to be unfruitful.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Malaysian Horticulturist in Florida

Last night, I hosted a visitor from Florida, Charles Teh, who had emigrated to USA twenty years ago. He was practicing as a horticulturist in Singapore and Malaysia before he decided to emigrate. It was interesting to get his impressions of Kuala Lumpur now compared to when he left.

I took him to Desa Park City, a new residential area in Kuala Lumpur, and he thought the standard of landscaping and tree planting was comparable with residential areas in Florida. But he was horrified to see Bucida buceras (native of Florida) as a roadside tree here. He says this is a weedy tree in Forida. In Malaysia, I assured him, Bucida behaves itself and does not multiply on its own.

I was surprised to hear that so many of the plants we grow here are also grown in Florida, albeit with some difficulty in the winter. In turn, he was surprised to see snapdragons, pelargoniums, rosemary and pansies flowering on my balcony. I later took him to a rooftop garden where I have magnolias, persimmons, plums, peaches, apples, planes and camelias growing. We are pushing the limits. While gardeners in temperate and subtropical regions are exploring ways to grow tropical plants, some of us in the tropics are exploring ways to grow temperate plants.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A temperate garden in the lowland tropics

Many temperate plants will grow and flower in the highland tropics at 1000m elevation and above. In the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia for example, fuchsias, daylilies, apples, roses, pelargoniums and snapdragons grow and flower throughout the year. In the lowlands e.g. in Kuala Lumpur, at 100m, they survive for only a few weaks or may grow but not flower.

I have been trying to grow temperate plants by arranging for them to get a cold water shower for 15 minutes a night at midnight. The water is chilled to about 18 degrees Celcius. However the effect has not been significant.

My next option was to get engineers to design a flat bed cooler on which I can place containers of plants for their roots to be cooled at night. I have opted for cooling at night so as not to have to fight against the daytime high temperature of 30 degrees. At night there is a natural drop to 24 degrees, which is a help. However the engineers have not been able to design a flatbed cooler for me. I thought this would be somewhat like a mini ice-skating rink, but exposed to sun and rain and only switched on at night. Does anyone out there know whether this can be done?