Will the guava make a comeback?

Once a staple of gardens and preserve jars, the guava should be making a comeback reckons DAVE PEPLER.

In Robertson, my home town, the town calendar was dominated by the annual agricultural show. For weeks before the opening, the show ground was abuzz with the sounds of mowing and hammering, while on the farms horses and cattle received their annual beauty treatment. But the greatest whisper of excitement had nothing to do with agriculture because the crowning of the annual Show Queen eclipsed everything. In parlours all over town, aspirant princesses groomed and primped while their mothers sewed – costumes of bouffant silk and bouffant crinoline, the waists threaded to wasp dimensions.

guava, Dave Pepler

In a long shed to the left of the rugby pavilion, the VLV (Women’s Agricultural Association) had its annual exhibition of handcrafts. The walls were lined with staggered shelves and down the middle of the room a long trestle table draped in damask was the holy of holies, where the winning products were adorned with extravagant rosettes. My most vivid memory is of the jams and preserves, aglow in Ball jars caught in the harsh slanting light from the high windows. Like a coral reef, the shelves became bands of fruity tourmaline shades.

My mother, many times, entered the marmalade competitions, her speciality being citron preserve. The fruits were halved and, with infinite care, the rough peel was grated to a bottle smoothness, the pulp removed, and then meticulously cooked in a copper cauldron with a pinch of blouvieterjoel (copper sulphate). The result was sublime: caps of translucent celadon floating in a crystalline syrup. 

Grape jams formed the kelps of the reef, gooseberries (my beloved Aunt Ella would prick each fruit with a hat pin to keep the globes whole) looked like floating polyps, peaches were the colour of limonite. And then there were the guavas, halved. The flesh of the guava is a special pink, not rowdy or brash but matte, the exact colour of coral. Or, perhaps, the cloudy hue of rhodochrosite, that exquisite gem from Colorado. This is how I shall always remember this humble room; red-marbled soetkoekies, tiny sparkles of doilies, and the preserves: citron green, grape brown and the melliferous pink of guava. Like Baby Suggs, the tragic slave woman in Toni Morrison’s Beloved who remembers pink as the last colour before she dies, I shall always be drawn to, and evoke, the pink of guavas afloat in sugary space.

Should winter have a South African ‘smellscape’, I wager it would contain top notes of guavas in a rattan basket and coffee. The middle notes would be the smell of woodsmoke, perhaps blended with touches of moist leather, and all this would rest on a base of wet leaves and soil after rain. How interesting that an independent perfume house, Zoologist Perfumes, formulated a delightful fragrance called ‘Bat’. Guava, with fig and passion fruit, tops the smell pyramid, followed by a middle of jasmine and hay, finally resting on a base of leather, teak and oak moss. Fruit bat?

This smell could have been created as a signature scent for the old gardens of Stellenbosch. Take a walk in the heritage yard behind the town museum, or the famed garden of Dorothy Johnman in Herte Street, and there, as old as the town itself, you will find a guava tree. Once predictable staples of post-war gardens, the trees are now confined to a small guava-producing industry based mainly in the Western Cape. Perhaps the time has come to rediscover this lovely fruit?

With its compact form, smooth sensual bark and bountiful harvests, the guava tree brings fruiting architecture to your garden and, to an older generation, remembrances of things past. 

Dave Pepler is a landscape ecologist and naturalist interested in the living world and how we interact with the environment. As a humanist, he believes in the inherent goodness of man and holds kindness to be the greatest virtue.