In this most unseasonable of springs, I’ve decided to introduce you to an interesting fruit I met in my teens. The pepino, or pepino dulce (Solanum muricatum) is one of those slightly outlandish do-we-use-it-as-a-fruit-or-vegetable type crops, but has appeal nonetheless. It’s a member of the Solanaceae (nightshade family) and I thought it topical given we are approaching tomato-planting time. Oddly enough, its fruits taste more like a member of the Cucurbitaceae – hence its common names of melon pear/pear melon, melon-shrub and sweet cucumber. In stature, flowers and foliage it looks most like a potato plant – a true folly indeed.
Pepino bushes bear thin-skinned, egg-shaped fruits in shades of cream streaked with purple, or lilac-purple with darker purple streaks. The flesh is slightly crisp, slightly yielding to the bite, juicy and mildly sweet. The flavour is a cross between honeydew or cantaloupe melon, cucumber and pear. I sometimes catch a slightly acidic note towards the end with some fruit. Being reasonably small in size, they also make excellent container specimens for small gardens or covered growing.
Pepinos: a short family history
As well as the more well-known tomatoes, capsicums and eggplants, pepinos have the tamarillo and Cape gooseberry amongst their relatives. They are native to the Andean regions of Colombia, Peru and Chile, from sea level to 10,000 feet above. They will thrive in the same conditions that you would provide tomato plants with – warm and frost-free, although they have a slightly woodier stem structure and can survive brief periods of frost down to -2°C, although leaf loss is likely to occur.
The earliest records of pepino cultivation stem from the Moche Valley in Peru – pepino fruit are a feature of decorative artworks, including ceramics, that come from this area. They were introduced to California in the 1920s (some sources say as early as the late 1800s) on the merits of their melon-like flavour, but failed to displace the genuine article in a commercial sense. They have also been grown commercially in New Zealand and Australia from time to time, and fruit from improved Australasian cultivars has made its way to Europe, North America and Japan, where it is often viewed favourably in high-end markets.
Suitable climates and growing conditions
Temperate and warm-temperate climates suit the pepino best, an average growing season temperature range of 18-24°C is ideal. They will tolerate mild frosts, and on suitable soils in a mild climate the plant can last for several years.
Plants can grow up to a metre in height, and spread between one to two metres in favourable conditions, but the plants are generally smaller than this. Allow at least 0.5 m spacing between plants to prevent them from becoming a tangled heap and keep some airflow through the canopy. Pepinos are perennial in favourable climates, but where they struggle can also be treated as an annual and regrown from cuttings each year.
The plants produce small blue-purple potato-like flowers from spring to late-autumn. Fruit can be set parthenocarpically (without pollination) but pollination (cross or self, with the aid of insects or even a paintbrush) definitely enhances fruit set. Plants will fruit within 4-6 months of planting, with maturation occurring 30-80 days after pollination, with the bulk ripening around March, with the volume of mature fruit produced dependent on the length of, and warmth during, the growing season. Wet weather at flowering can hamper fruit set.
Pepinos can be propagated from seed in the same way as tomatoes, but are more commonly produced clonally via cuttings. I’ve also found that trailing stems will easily take root via the production of adventitious roots, just like tomatoes, and the rooted piece can be separated from the parent plant and potted up. Otherwise, take cuttings about 15 cm in length in summer, dip in rooting hormone and place in a suitable propagation mix (good quality compost with some pumice mixed in to facilitate drainage) and keep warm and moist.
Site selection and planting
Plant pepinos outside after the danger of frosts has passed, fractionally earlier under cover. A sunny location with free-draining, fertile soil is ideal. They will also tolerate semi-shade, and need shelter as they are not wind-tolerant. They will do well planted up against a brick or concrete wall for support and radiated warmth. You can support the plant with stakes or a trellis to help keep the fruit off the ground. Fertile, well-drained soil types are best – wherever tomatoes go, so will the pepino. They tend to struggle in salty, windy coastal conditions.
With their diminutive stature and usually compact growth habit, pepinos make excellent container plants – I used to grow them with great success in large tubs on a hillside balcony in Christchurch. In colder regions, you can bring them inside if necessary, just like patio-grown tomato plants.
Culture and care
Pepinos require adequate moisture throughout the growing season for good fruit-set and general growth. Plants will tolerate some moistures stress, but try and avoid this with container-grown plants.
Good quality compost and some well-rotted manure or sheep pellets should provide adequate nutrition, which can be topped up with low-nitrogen fertiliser in spring and midsummer. Avoid applying excess nitrogen, as it will result in excessive vegetative growth at the expense of fruit and flower production, and increase the risk of disease developing.
A quick tidy-up of straggly, dead or damaged branches is all that’s required to get your pepino plants ready to overwinter. You may find in your climate the plants are spent by the end of the growing season, so plan ahead and propagate some new plants from cuttings during the summer.
Pests, diseases and what to do about them
Pepinos are affected by many of the pests that other Solanaceous crops suffer from, including spider mites, aphids and whitefly. Give bad infestations a spray with a pyrethrum-based product, following the label directions for tomatoes. I can’t find a lot of literature about pepinos being a significant host plant for the tomato potato psyllid, but being a member of the Solanaceae, they may get a few visits.
Diseases that may cause issues include the fungal blights caused by Alternaria and Phytophthora spp. It is probably easier to remove and destroy any affected plants rather than bother with fungicide sprays, but Yates liquid copper may be of use.
Varieties: My top picks
El Camino – the most common variety available in New Zealand. Medium-large egg-shaped yellow fruit, dark purple stripes developing as the fruit ripens. Seeds are available from Kings Seeds.
(Incredible) Ruby – darker green, purple-tinged foliage than El Camino, occasionally with a weeping/trailing growth habit once bearing fruit. Medium-large, elongated purple fruit.
What to do with your crop
Best as a fresh dessert fruit, served chilled as you would melon. Can be used in salads in place of cucumber, or when fully ripe, in a smoothie. Peel before use, the skin is rather unpalatable! There are several recipes online utilising the fruit in jams, sauces and an ingredient in fillings for sweet pastries. The ripe fruit bruises easily and therefore doesn’t store overly well, so consume soon after harvest. Refrigerated, they may last for up to four weeks.
Find some recipe inspiration here:
Anna-Marie Barnes is an active member of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association who endeavours to grow and preserve as much of her own fresh produce as possible. When the weather’s no good for gardening, she can usually be found inside working on a batch of homemade cheese or soap.
The New Zealand Tree Crops Association is a voluntary organisation promoting interest in useful trees, such as those producing fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, wood, stock fodder, bee forage and other productive crops. Find out more about the NZTCA here: https://treecrops.org.nz/
Disclaimer: the information supplied above is of a general nature and provided as reference material only. In regards to pest and disease control, please consult your agrichemical consultant for suitable products, application rates and further region-specific information.
Solanum muricatum Flower and fruit - Michael w, CC BY 2.5
All others Anna-Marie Barnes