All around the world, including here in New Zealand, there's a sprawling community of like-minded souls who get together online and in person to share a common obsession: fringe (or marginal) food crop gardening.
These are food plants that do not easily or commonly grow in their environment. In New Zealand this includes most species from the tropics or subtropics which therefore require a bit of mollycoddling in our climate. Fringe-food croppers here experiment with cocoa, vanilla, sapodilla, pistachios, mangoes, santol, jackfruit and many others. Microclimates and genetic luck of the draw can make all the difference.
Although there are no clubs or associations specifically dedicated to exotic food crops in New Zealand, the Tree Crop Association includes many members who have locally relevant knowledge about exotic crops.
Many members have built collections of rare heritage fruit - apples that your gran would recognise, nut trees and more. The association is great way of networking and obtaining rare and unusual food plants not seen elsewhere.
While researching this story I asked some of my favourite online exotic food plant forums what attracted people to the hobby. Apart from the inevitable one or two who approached it competitively (every hobby has its train-spotters), for most people it's a means of "doing something real" and of "investing hope" in the seemingly impossible as an extension of the natural desire to produce food from the land. My fellow weird plant collectors were lawyers, teachers, publishers, cleaners and musicians - a very mixed bag indeed.
Like many hobbyists, rare food plant collectors have a huge presence in cyberspace too. Online, the Cloud Forest Cafe, based out of northern California, and The Garden Web forums are two of the most active food plant communities in the world with thousands of members, including plenty of New Zealanders. Collectors pick the brains of professional mango growers in Puerto Rico or wannabe papaya growers in Gisborne. Local website Ooooby attracts many local growers and hobbyists too, and rather like the Tree Crop Association offers invaluable local experience and advice about a wide range of plants and trees.
There are plenty of options for sourcing plants. A good place to start is through the Tree Crop Association, while more intrepid collector can check out produce markets and fruit shops for interesting seed material. Specialist Asian fruiters in New Zealand regularly stock fresh durians, lychees, longans and several varieties of mango (mango seeds grow easily and the plants make moderately hardy - if thus far unfruitful - outdoor specimens in northern parts). Auckland's Avondale Market is probably the best sources of usual herbs in the country - such as lesser galangal, zedoary, Manila sweet tamarind and others. The armchair collector is well catered for too, with Trade Me turning up some real gems from time to time.
For real rarities though, eBay remains the main source for devout collectors worldwide. The seeds of every conceivable food plant will appear on here listings sooner or later, but be warned: not everything listed can be legally imported into New Zealand.
MAF manages a database of species approved for entry, and it's important to consult this before making any purchases. Unapproved seeds or those found to be wet, mouldy, germinating, harbouring pests or not labelled (with the plant's scientific name), will be confiscated and destroyed.
Whether you join an outfit like the Tree Crop Association or hang out on an online forum, fringe-food plant collecting is a great way of meeting a diverse group of innately optimistic, food and garden-loving individuals; not to mention acquiring and growing some fascinating and ultimately delicious plants.
Find out more
* Tree Crops Association: Next Auckland meeting is Tuesday, March 27, 7.30pm. Auckland Horticultural Centre, 990 Great North Rd, Western Springs.
* The Free Fruit Peddlers: A group who plant heritage fruit seeds along the roadsides of New Zealand, including the national cycleway.
* Ooooby, A great places to network, pick up handy tips and acquire seeds.
* MAF Plant Biosecurity Database
* Other special interest groups: If food plants aren't your bag but you'd like to get into some sort of speciality gardening, try the Carnivorous Plants Society or the Cacti and Succulent society (affectionately known as Cack and Suck). See nzcps.co.nz or akcactus.org.nz for meeting details