Gardening

Considering growing coconas? Here are the pros and cons…

Considering growing coconas? Here are the pros and cons... thumbnail
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Cocona (Solanum sessiliflorum) is a tropical fruit from Central and South America that’s beginning to catch on with gardeners and farmers in other regions of the world as well. This article provides everything you need to know to grow and eat coconas in non-tropical regions — plus pros and cons you might want to consider BEFORE you decide whether you want to grow coconas.


We always make an effort to grow something new each garden season. Case in point: in 2017, we saw cocona seeds listed on Baker Creek’s website. 

Hmm. It’s not often that we haven’t heard of a plant before, but cocona was a new one for us. There was a dearth of information about coconas on the web, but we decided we’d give them a try in our 2018 summer garden anyway. 

We’ve now been growing coconas since then, so we’ll share what we’ve learned to help other gardeners who may be considering growing coconas. 

A brief history of coconas  

Coconas are nightshade fruit (related to tomatoes and tomatillos) native to southern Central America and northern South America. They’re often found in markets in Panama, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil. 

There are dozens of domesticated strains of cocona, but they generally fall into one of four classifications based on fruit features: 

  1. Small ping-pong ball sized red/purple fruits (this is the type we got from Baker Creek);
  2. Larger yellow fruits that resemble apples; 
  3. Larger pear-shaped yellow-orange fruits; 
  4. Medium-sized yellow fruits (very popular indigenously to make into juice); 
Our red-fruited cocona cultivar. Ripe cocona fruit.

Our red-fruited cocona cultivar. Here you can also see green unripe fruit developing on the plant.

Journals of early European explorers describe coconas growing abundantly in gardens and farms throughout the region. Today, they have many common names, including: cubiu, tupiro, coconilla, lulo, and others.  

What does cocona fruit taste like? 

Cocona fruit quality and taste likely varies by cultivar and growing conditions. When we first ate coconas from our plants, we weren’t terribly impressed: they tasted like tangy, bland tomatoes with a thick skin. However, we soon realized we were premature in our judgment. 

Red-ripe cocona fruit picked from one of our plants but not quite ready to eat...

Beautiful, red-ripe cocona fruit picked from one of our plants but not quite ready to eat…

I left some red-ripe, hard/firm cocona fruit on our countertop and forgot about them for about a week. By the time I noticed them again during a kitchen cleaning, the fruit had softened and the skin was slightly wrinkled. 

I cut them open and they emitted a delightful tropical fruit smell, reminiscent of passion fruit. Nibble, nibble: amazing tangy tropical flavor but still not quite sweet enough to balance the sour tang. I sprinkled on a bit of stevia and the fruit came alive — one of the best tropical fruits I’ve had.   

As best as I can tell as a non-Spanish speaking gringo, that seems to be the fruit’s reputation in its native region as well: not great as-is but delicious when sweetened or made into juice, sauces, dessert fillings, etc. 

How to grow cocona fruit

Cocona fruit in various stages of ripeness. Fruit on our cultivar develops from green to orange to red/purple when ripe.

Cocona fruit in various stages of ripeness. Fruit on our cultivar develops from green to orange to red/purple when ripe.

Coconas are not a great candidate for beginning gardeners, especially if you live in non-tropical climate zones. Here’s why:

Coconas: seed starting

Cocona seeds take a long time to germinate, even under ideal conditions. We started our first cocona seeds in early January 2018 on a heat mat with tomatoes and other common summer nightshades. All the other seeds germinated within a week, but not the coconas… 

I’d pretty well given up on our cocona seeds before I noticed them germinating in early April – three months later! So if you’re starting cocona seeds, do the following:

  • sow 1/4″ deep in seed starting mix;
  • provide high heat (80-90°F);
  • keep the seed cells damp but not wet;
  • prepare to wait up to 3-4 months before germination.  

Cocona: Days to maturity and ripe fruit

The long germination time is then followed by a relatively long time to maturity. From germination to maturity, coconas require full sun: 6-8 hrs+ direct sunlight daily.

Coconas produce clusters of attractive white flowers in the leaf axils. Cocona flowers

Coconas produce clusters of attractive white flowers in the leaf axils.

Cocona plants don’t typically begin setting fruit until about ~6 months after germination. Then the fruit takes another 2-3 months to fully ripen. 

See the problem? For most gardeners in the northern hemisphere who start their summer seeds indoors in January, this means cocona plants wouldn’t produce their first ripe fruits until mid-fall, around November

However, since coconas are very sensitive to cool/cold weather (ours get stressed by temps in the mid 40°F range), they’d typically be killed by the first frost before they have a chance to produce ripe fruit in our climate, Ag Zone 7b.  

Thus, our Year 1 cocona growing misadventures…

We grew five cocona plants in 5 gallon pots. (Note that you can just grow one cocona plant, since the flowers are self-fertile.) Our plants were loaded with unripe green and yellow-orange fruit when we had to start moving it into our garage at night in October as cool temperatures set in. 

Even though we were able to protect our plants from frosts and freezes, they became increasingly stressed as temperatures cooled. Much of the fruit didn’t ripen and four out of five plants died before spring. We did manage to make an excellent fermented beverage out of our first ripe/semi-ripe fruit, so our appetites were whetted. 

Our surviving plant perked back up as soon as temperatures warmed in the spring and produced an abundance of fruit in the summer.

The skin and pulp of ripe cocona fruit. Cocona fruit skin is technically edible but too tough to be palatable.

The skin and pulp of ripe cocona fruit. Cocona fruit skin is technically edible but too tough to be palatable.

Are coconas perennial? 

Yes, coconas can be grown as perennials although they’re probably not long-lived perennials like a fruit tree. We’re not certain how many years cocona plants can live, but if they’re like related nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants), they can live for 3-5 years+ under ideal conditions.  

Three cocona growing tips for non-tropical climate zones

If you plan to grow coconas in non-tropical climate zones, follow these three tips: 

  1. Start your cocona seeds indoors on a seedling heat mat months ahead of your tomatoes and other summer nightshades. Then plan to keep them indoors under grow lights or in front of a sunny south-facing window until you can begin taking them outdoors when temperatures warm in the late winter-early spring. 
  2. Grow mature plants in the largest pots possible that you can still move (they’re roots are far more vigorous than tomatoes, so the more room the better). Don’t try to grow coconas in-ground. Use high quality organic potting soil and apply a high quality organic fertilizer (like kelp emulsion) every 3-4 weeks.
  3. Plan to bring your potted cocona plants indoors or provide them extra protection (heated garage, shed, etc) when temperatures drop into lower 40s or below.

How big do cocona plants grow and what are their yields? 

Cocona plants mature to about 5′-6′ tall x 3-4′ wide.

Large red ants greeting each other on the underside of a cocona leaf. Cocona plants most closely resemble giant eggplant plants. They produce large, heavily veined leaves with scalloped leaf margins.

Large red ants greeting each other on the underside of a cocona leaf. Cocona plants most closely resemble giant eggplant plants. They produce large, heavily veined leaves with scalloped leaf margins.

In the tropics, coconas can produce large yields. According to Purdue University Horticulture, some cultivars can yield up to 60 pounds of fruit per plant. 

However, gardeners/market farmers in non-tropical zones in North America should plan for much lower yields. Our small-fruited coconas growing in pots in a moderate climate zone may at most yield ~10 pounds of fruit per plant. Yields could potentially be increased by:

  • growing in a heated greenhouse,
  • growing indoors under LED grow lights, and/or
  • growing larger fruited varieties (if you can find seeds). 

Harvesting cocona fruit: when is it ripe? How do you eat it? 

Different cocona cultivars ripen to different colors, from yellow to orange to red/purple. We’ve only grown the smaller, red-fruited cocona variety from Baker Creek. 

All cocona fruit has a fuzz on its surface (very similar to a peach) as it ripens. When the fruit turns red-ripe, the fuzz can be easily rubbed off by hand, revealing the beautiful skin color underneath. 

As previously mentioned, our ripe cocona fruit does not soften on the plant as it ripens. It feels firm, almost hard, even when the the fruit is dark red and ripe. Nor is it particularly easy to remove from the plant (remove with pruners or a firm pull). 

Don’t eat freshly picked cocona fruit immediately. Instead, allow it to continue to develop indoors until the skin softens and shows slight wrinkles, ~1 week. At that point, the flavor is fully developed and the fruit is ready to eat. 

This is what the outside of our coconas look like when they're perfectly ripe and have the best flavor: wrinkly and slightly soft to the touch. You won't believe how good they smell when you cut them open!

This is what the outside of our coconas look like when they’re perfectly ripe and have the best flavor: wrinkly and slightly soft to the touch. You won’t believe how good they smell when you cut them open!

Slice in half and scoop out the interior custardy pulp, which also contains hundreds of tiny edible seeds, similar to a tomato or ground cherry. Cocona fruit’s skin is edible but too thick/leathery to be enjoyable. 

As-is, cocona fruit is very tangy and sour. A bit of stevia or honey vastly improves the flavor and accentuates the tropical notes. Think of it like a lemon – not something you’d want to munch on by itself, but an amazing flavor/ingredient once amended. 

If you only have a few cocona plants but want to make a recipe requiring more ripe fruit than you have available, simply scoop out the insides of your fruit as it ripens then freeze it until you have the quantity you need. 

Perfectly ripe fruit from our cocona plants. The skin is dark red and slightly soft and wrinkled. Cocona fruit.

Perfectly ripe fruit from our cocona plants. The skin is dark red and slightly soft and wrinkled.

Should you grow coconas? Roundup of pros and cons: 

We don’t want to make a recommendation one way or the other on whether you should grow coconas, but hopefully the information provided in this article will help you decide. A quick roundup of the pros and cons:

Pros: 

  • Very unusual, prized fruit that you can not typically find in American grocery stores;
  • Extraordinary flavor once sweetened.

Cons: 

  • Not an easy plant to grow, especially for beginning gardeners;
  • Requires a very long growing season (minimum ~8 months before first ripe fruit);
  • Lower fruit yields in non-tropical climates. 

Will we continue to grow coconas? Yes! As long as our three existing potted cocona plants continue to live, we’ll continue to nurture them, despite the extra effort required.    

KIGI,

Other interesting gardening articles you might enjoy: 

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