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Times of the Islands Magazine

Star of the Home Orchard: Carambola offers a unique and exotic taste

May 06, 2021 05:35PM ● By ERIK ENTWISTLE

The carambola, popularly known as the starfruit, is a familiar sight in our local grocery stores. But the quality can often be sub-par, poorly reflecting the potential of this exotic fruit to deliver great taste and a wonderfully juicy, crisp texture. Thankfully, you can grow your own specimen of this tropical Southeast Asian native right here in Southwest Florida—and be rewarded with a significant upgrade in flavor that the newest varieties afford for the home gardener.

Carambola trees grow fairly quickly and can begin producing a crop within 12 to 18 months of planting, so you won’t have to wait years before harvesting fruit. The trees are manageable in growth habit and can be pruned to the desired size and shape, making it an ideal choice for those with limited space.

Maintaining your tree at a height of 12 feet will also reduce the likelihood of it toppling during a hurricane. Because carambola prefers hot, humid, moist conditions, it will require irrigation during the dry season here.

Selecting the correct variety to grow is paramount, as many older varieties are lacking in flavor. We have two trees of different varieties growing on our Sanibel Island property. Both were obtained from the FruitScapes nursery located in Bokeelia on Pine Island.

Our first, known as “Kari,” was developed at the University of Hawaii and produces very large orange-yellow fruit in abundance. More recently, we planted “Bell,” a variety named after Marjorie Bell of Palm Beach, Florida. Her husband, Frank, produced this hybrid seedling whose fruit peel is not as bitter as other starfruit varieties. The fruit from this tree has also been of excellent quality.

Carambola produces fruit in our region any time between June and February, and our trees seem to set fruit at will without any discernible pattern. It is important to realize that fruits will not continue to ripen after picking—and therefore should be allowed to ripen on the tree. This is one reason why store-bought starfruit are often disappointing. Carambola tends to have been harvested when not quite ripe, in order to survive storage and transportation.

Be sure to keep a close watch on the tree as fruits are ripening. Starfruit can be harvested once the color starts to turn from green to yellow-orange, and some might prefer the extra-crisp texture and more acidic profile of slightly greener fruits. A fully ripe fruit will easily pull off the tree, whereas greener fruits will resist removal. If allowed to ripen until they fall from the tree, the fruits will likely be damaged, overripe and squishy.

Ripe fruits should be eaten as soon as possible. They deteriorate quickly and should not be left on the counter or refrigerated more than a few days. Carambola may be served at room temperature or cold, depending on preference.

To serve, simply pare off the ends of the ribs if desired (which tend to be bitter), and then cut the fruit lengthwise into star-shaped slices. We also like to dry our sliced carambola in a dehydrator, which intensifies the flavor and allows us to enjoy them year-round.

Although everyone might not equally appreciate the unique and exotic taste of starfruit, those who do will find growing their own to be a delightful experience.

Pianist, instructor and musicologist Erik Entwistle received an undergraduate degree in music from Dartmouth College. He earned a post-graduate degree in piano performance at Washington University in St. Louis and his doctorate in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He teaches on Sanibel Island.