There is an unusual plant in my garden, one that I mistook for a white eggplant. Indeed, it is from the same Solanum family as eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes. The plant right now is small and has dark, shiny attractive leaves and flowers that remind you of eggplants. Then there are the egg-shaped and larger than egg-sized white fruit, which have purple striping. The plant arrived in my garden via Roger Boddaert, the landscape architect who has been working on my property, and there was no name on it. My daughter and I speculated on what the plant could be. A couple of years ago when we were traveling in Ecuador, we were usually served fruit with a sugar syrup for dessert. One of the fruits served was called a Tree Tomato. It was a local treat. It was one of the most god-awful things I’d ever put in my mouth. Thin, red bitter skin filled entirely with small hard seeds and sour pulp, it was everything we could do to eat enough of it to be polite. In our research for what this plant was, the Tree Tomato came into mind and we were apprehensive that we were now the owners of a white version of this disgusting fruit.
We were wonderfully incorrect! The plant in our yard is called pepino, or Solanum muricatum, or pepino melon, or sweet pepino, it is a South American shrubby plant with incredible sweet fruit. It is a relative of the Tree Tomato, and that only goes to show how different members of the same family tree can be! The fruit as it ripens doesn’t become particularly soft; in fact, when it wrinkles it is overripe. The fragrance of the uncut fruit is marvelous. When you open the fruit it has a small center of easily scooped small seeds, and flesh that isn’t too soft or too crunch and has a taste of a ripe melon with a hint of fresh cucumber.
The scent is intoxicating, and reminded one friend I showed it to of some elusive childhood fragrance. The perfume is even better than the fruit, but the fruit is wonderful cut up in a fruit salad. The bush itself is attractive, especially with the egg-like fruit dangling from it.
Although pepinos are new to me (I’m always amazed at how many things I don’t know about, even with reading about five books a week and keeping my eyes and ears open in life), they’ve been in San Diego since the late 1800s, and are often grown in greenhouses. They’ve been eaten in the Andes, Ecuador, Peru and Chili from whence they came for so long as to appear in some artwork. If you have a spot in your yard for an unusual and highly satisfactory fruit, look for pepino. The fragrance of the fruit alone is worth it!