Growing Unusual Fruits and Vegetables from the Grocery Store

Posted by @Bubbles on
Have you ever wandered through a grocery produce section and wondered how some of the more exotic fruits and vegetables are grown and how they should be prepared? I recently roamed the aisles of a local grocery that caters to our city's growing international transplants. I had never seen so many root vegetables that were unknown to me. My husband wasn't along and therefore could not be embarrassed by his wife, so I asked permission to photograph some of the produce with my phone. The produce manager smiled and said, "People do it all the time."

I found the best sources for identification and how to prepare these unusual fruits and vegetables were the produce clerks who were stocking the shelves and bins. Picking up a tuber or fruit, I would ask what it was and how it was cooked or prepared.  The clerks were more than eager to answer.  After a few of my questions, I only had to lift an item out of the bin.  One of the stockers would call across the floor what it was and how to use it.  I took notes written on the only paper in my purse, the deposit slips of my checkbook (what else am I going to use them for).  It was an enjoyable, spontaneous experience for me, and possibly for the good natured stockers also.

I quickly concluded most produce could be grown simply by buying the fruit or vegetable itself and removing a few of the seeds to dry, or cutting the tubers into pieces to plant. I later took a second trip back to the store with my camera and a small notebook. Some of these plants I thought I would grow out of curiosity, others I'd try as a possible alternative food source.

Chayotes (Sechium edule) are cucurbits and grow on very long vines.  They are also known as vegetable pears or mirlitons in the Deep South. I have to admit that growing up in the south, I had heard of mirlitons, but never tried them.  They can be used in place of potatoes, or in any squash recipe.  Chayote Macho is another interesting variety that has a prickly outer skin. It is prepared in the same manner.  The whole chayote is planted in early spring.  Since male and female flowers are formed on the same vine, they need bees for pollination.  A popular Mexican restaurant in Austin grows these in their kitchen garden.

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Xoconostles are the fruit of a type of nopal, or cactus, that are imported from Mexico.  What distinguishes the fruit, or tunas, of the Xoconostles from those of other prickly pear cacti is their seeds are concentrated in the center of the fruit, instead of being distributed throughout the fruit.  This makes the seeds easier to remove.  If you've ever split open a prickly pear cactus fruit, you know that there are hundreds of tiny seeds all through it. Xoconostles are used for salsas, and also eaten as a tart fresh fruit.  The seeds can be dried and planted.


Guajes are the beans of the Acacia tree in Mexico.   Eaten raw or combined with chiles to make salsas, they can also be cooked like other beans with garlic and spices.  The USDA identifies this plant as Leucaena leucocephala, and it's known here as the white leadtree. The fresh dried seeds can be planted in spring.


Dragon fruit (Hylocereus undatus) is also known as pitaya, strawberry pear,and pitahaya.  It grows as the fruit of an epiphytic cactus with beautiful night blooming flowers.  The fruit is eaten chilled and can also be used to flavor drinks and desserts.  The seeds can be collected and planted. I have a huge sprawling dragon fruit plant, but mine has yet to produce any fruit. 


Boniato (Ipomoea batatas) is in the morning glory family.  Other names for it are batata, white sweet potato, Cuban sweet potato, and canote.  It is said that it tastes like a cross between a baking potato and a sweet potato. It can be grown by division of the tubers. 

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Yellow ñame (Discorea cayenensis) is a root vegetable sometimes called a yam.  It is used like a potato and can be fried, mashed, boiled, or grilled.  Unlike the potato, the inside is sticky and slimy. It can be grown from a root section.


Taro (Colocasia esculenta), also known as dasheen in some parts of the world, is a starchy corm that can be roasted, baked, or steamed.  Hawaiian poi is made from taro.  Poi is definitely an acquired taste (one that I have yet to acquire even after living in Hawaii for a few years).  It can be grown from a corm. It is also popular as a tropical plant, commonly called an elephant ear.  It grows well in a pond also.

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Yuca (Manihot esculenta), not to be confused with yucca, is a starchy tuberous root of the Cassava tree.  It is the source of tapioca pudding among other things! Who knew?  I plan to buy one of these roots next spring to grow for the foliage.  I would personally not grow this to eat for fear of cyanide poisoning from not preparing it correctly.  You have been warned.

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Thai peppers (Capsicum annuum) are considered by some to be the third hottest peppers in the world.  Only haberneros and scotch bonnets are considered hotter.  These peppers are usually dried and made into a paste.  The seeds are easily grown into small shrubs. I don't care for extremely hot peppers, but the plant is an attractive little bush I'd enjoy having in my garden.


Sing Qua or Chinese okra (Loofa acutangula), is also known as angled luffa, silk gourd, or ridged gourd, with vines that can grow to 9 feet. Mainly used in curry, or fried with meats, they're reported to taste like zucchini. They are not the vegetables that loofa sponges are made from, but in the same family.  Sing Quas should be eaten when they are no more than about six inches long.  Larger ones are too bitter.  The seeds can be dried and successfully grown. This is another vegetable I want to try.


Ginger (Zingiber officinala) root is the rhizome of the ginger plant.  It's very easy to grow if you keep it moist and don't plant it too deeply.  Soak the root in water a few hours to to remove any growth retardent that may be on it before planting.  Fresh ginger is so much better than the powdered stuff in a jar.


Indian bitter melon (Momordica charantia) is supposedly the most bitter of all fruits.  It must be an acquired taste, as the produce folks made faces when describing the taste.  It's usually stuffed with vegetables or meat.  It's a very interesting looking plant.  The seeds can be scraped out and dried for planting, if you dare.


Tunas are the fruit, or "pears" of the Prickly Pear cacti (Opuntia).  They taste like strawberries to me, but others discern flavors such as watermelon, citrus, and bananas, to name a few.  Tunas are used in jams and jellies and to flavor some drinks.  Some think they have medicinal benefits also.  The seeds can be planted, but it would be easier to pick up a cactus paddle (nopales) and plant it to produce fruit.  They are very easy to grow.  Just dropping a paddle on the ground will cause it to put out new growth and eventually produce roots.  Prickly pears are very cold hardy.

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Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia) paddles, or stems, are peeled to remove the thorns. After cutting them up, they are grilled, pickled or boiled to make what are called nopalitos. I stopped to observe a young clerk in the market stripping the thorns off a pile of paddles.  She would eventually cut the paddles into small strips for the nopalitos.  I watched to see how she would avoid being stuck by the thorns.  Unfortunately she couldn't escape them, and kept stopping to rub the prickly thorns from her hands. As she spoke no English and my Spanish is minimal at best, I couldn't suggest that she use rubber gloves.  Nopalitos are eaten with eggs, chilies, and meats.


I have more unusual fruits and vegetables to show, but I'll save them for another day. Most roots should be soaked a few hours before planting in case there's any kind of growth inhibitor on them. There were quite a few root vegetables at the grocery that I recognized as "elephant ears" (Alocasias) and in addition to being a food source, could be planted in the garden for tropical interest. If you can only plant one of the above, I would suggest trying ginger root. It's very easy to grow and you won't have to run to the store for a small piece to prepare that one recipe you seldom use.

Comments and discussion:
Thread Title Last Reply Replies
decorative pumpkin by davidsevit May 25, 2016 4:32 PM 7
Untitled by donnabking Dec 20, 2014 8:44 PM 1
Love growing from the Produce section by DavidLMO Dec 20, 2014 3:15 PM 1
Dragon Fruit by wcgypsy Dec 20, 2014 3:08 PM 5
growing ginger by lourspolaire Dec 30, 2011 9:30 AM 4
Ginger by Marylyn Dec 23, 2011 1:08 PM 27
Fun! by SongofJoy Dec 16, 2011 2:28 PM 14

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