Guava - Is this the name for a 'tropical' fruit, or for a unique landscape ornamental? It is both! Guava, Feijoa sellowiana, is a South American native which does indeed produce the luscious Guava fruit, but is also an exotically handsome shrub whose dramatic flowers could be the subject of a Georgia O'Keefe painting.
Guava is an evergreen shrub that will reach 10 to 15 in height with an equal spread in tropical areas but is more often seen in warm temperate zones (like coastal North Carolina) at 5-6 feet with equal spread. Guava's 2 inch long leaves are exotic in themselves as they are covered with tiny hairs that give the foliage a silvery appearance. The shrub's habit is relatively dense in colder areas where late frosts and severe cold nip branch tips in the bud, but it can grow to be open and spreading in warmer areas where nature relies on horticulturists to do the pruning. Guava is a handsome evergreen shrub with unique character that would warrant a place in many gardens even if it never flowered, but the blooms of this plant are such treasures that they steal the show from the plant's other attributes.
The flowers of Feijoa are about 2 inches wide and their coloring is so contrasted and rich that it nearly defies description. A ring of snowy white sepals arches back and down gracefully to reveal velvety magenta petals surrounding an upright tuft of brushy, cherry-red stamens that are each dusted with bright gold pollen. The sepals are petal-like bracts on the outer edge of flowers which are tasty to eat themselves, right off the plant! The blooms are tucked throughout the plant among the foliage. It is always a special surprise when the first Guava flower opens each year in late spring. The flowers develop into green fruit that mature into yellow berries 2-4 inches long with a lush, pineapple-like taste. Fruitset is variable with certain cultivars selected for fruit production giving optimal fruit production. Fruitset may require, and is definitely is optimized by, placing several plants in relatively close proximity to each other.
Feijoa sellowiana prefers moist, well-drained soil with full sun giving best flowering and fruiting, but it will tolerate a range of less than ideal soils, from sand to heavy clays if maximum. Guava will also perform well in partial shade (albeit with somewhat reduced flowering and fruitset). This shrub is quite salt tolerant and is particularly handsome in coastal type landscapes with its silvery leaves and colorful flowers. Guava is only reliably cold hardy on the coast and in the eastern Piedmont but it can be grown in sheltered locations throughout the lower elevations of the southeast. It makes a dramatic large container specimen on a patio or near a walk and can be pruned to control its spread following flowering. Landscape plants have been known to survive and re-emerge after being killed to the ground.
In addition to seedlings, which are generally good plants, there are several cultivars of Feijoa sellowiana which have been selected primarily for fruit production. 'Coolidge', 'Nazemata' and 'Pineapple Gem' are all good self-pollinating selections, while 'Superba' is a round-fruited form that needs to be planted with another cultivar for good fruit set, and 'Variegata' has white variegated foliage. Propagation of Guava is most reliable from seed which has been separated from the ripe fruit, but cuttings taken in summer are rooted for propagation of named cultivars.
Feijoa sellowiana is an amazingly dramatic shrub in bloom that carries unique character into the garden through twelve months of the year with its silvered, evergreen foliage. Feijoa never fails to command attention at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) as visitors leave the White Garden to wind through the Nandinas, and the gardeners are always surprised to learn that this spectacular landscape plant is the parent of a familiar tropical fruit, the Guava - a unique landscape ornamental and tropical fruit that deserves much wider use in southeastern gardens.