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NMSU studying 30 Chinese varieties of jujube fruit new to U.S.

Late frosts in northern New Mexico have a significant financial impact for fruit growers in the area. The problem is not just with apple trees, which may only set fruit five or six years out of 10, but also the stone fruits, such as apricot and peach. These fruits are all early bloomers that might bloom every year, but not set fruit because of late frosts.

Woman looking at fruit on a tree
Shengrui Yao, New Mexico State University Extension fruit specialist, is conducting variety tests of 30 Chinese jujube fruit tree cultivars new to the United States to find ones suitable for northern New Mexico’s shorter growing season. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

Fruit specialists at New Mexico State University’s Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde have explored alternative crops that will thrive in the shorter growing season.

One possibility is an ancient fruit from China, the jujube or Chinese date, which blooms later in the spring, thus missing the last dip in the thermometer for the season.

Fruit specialist Shengrui Yao was inspired by the existing jujube trees at Alcalde, which were planted by former fruit specialist Ron Walser and agricultural specialist Charles Martin in 2006.

Yao has surveyed the state for existing jujube trees and has found many situations in which the property owners did not know the fruit was eatable and is high in Vitamin C nutrients.

“I have found jujube trees throughout New Mexico, from Las Cruces and Silver City to Tucumcari, Tome and Alcalde,” she said. “Some were planted by Chinese immigrants who came to this area with the railroads. Others have been planted more recently by homeowners.”

Because of what she has seen during her survey and from her background of working with the fruit in China, Yao predicts the tree has good potential in New Mexico.

“This climate is really good for jujube fruit to grow, and it is a nice alternative crop for the growers,” Yao said. “We just need to find a wider selection of cultivars that ripen at different times and can be used for different purposes, such as fresh eating, drying or both.”

One issue Yao is addressing is that commercial nurseries are offering the same few cultivars – Li, Lang, Sherwood, Sugarcane, Contorted and GA866.

“The Li and Lang cultivars are the most prominent ones today. For commercial growers, this is limiting, because they ripen and are available for market at the same time,” she said. “To extend the availability of the fruit in markets, the growers need a variety of cultivars that ripen at different times and for different uses.”

The question is which of the 800 known cultivars in China will prosper in New Mexico. In 2011, Yao contacted her peer scientists in China and imported 30 cultivars under a U.S. Department of Agriculture importation permit.

“I picked some popular and famous varieties from the major growing areas in China, some traditional fresh eating, drying and multipurpose varieties, and newer selections, plus several ornamentals,” she said. “Hopefully we can select some good ones for growers to extend their market season and meet the different uses for consumers.”

After a two-year USDA quarantine to ensure no pests or disease accompanied the plants into the country, Yao is now propagating the imported cultivars along with other varieties existing in the U.S. to conduct replicated variety trials to see which will thrive in northern New Mexico.

Yao is seeing success in her first season of grafting, with eatable fruit forming during the second year of growth.

“I am very hopeful that we will find a nice selection of cultivars that will thrive here, allowing the commercial growers an alternative crop to offset their losses when the traditional fruit does not produce, as well as provide a good nutrient source for consumers,” Yao said of the research funded by a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant through the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.