Fruit trees and small fruits Houseplants Sowing Seeds

Starting Houseplants from Tropical Fruit

Lemon tree seedlings

Lemon tree seedlings. Photo: depositphotos

By Larry Hodgson

You can fill your house with beautiful foliage plants for next to nothing by sowing the seeds found inside fruits you buy at the grocery store. Citrus, avocados, pomegranates, kiwis, papayas, coffee plants, lychees, date palms, pomegranates, dragon fruit cactus, guavas and more can all make interesting houseplants.

Ideally, you’d choose a fruit of tropical or subtropical origin. Fruits from temperate climates—apples, grapes, cherries, etc.—produce seeds which sometimes germinate well, but rarely succeed indoors over the long term. They really need the distinct seasonal changes of a temperate climate to thrive, not the constant warmth of indoors.

Aborted seeds inside sliced bananas.
The little black dots in a banana are seeds, but aborted ones. There is no point in sowing them. Photo: jeehyun, depositphotos

It’s also vital that the fruit you buy contains fertile seeds. Bananas, navel oranges*, most figs and several other tropical fruits are sterile and either bear no seeds or their seeds aren’t viable. Also, the fruit must not have been cooked, irradiated or otherwise treated in a way that could prevent germination. Store-bought dates, for example, have usually been irradiated. There is a better chance of finding fruits with viable seeds in a market specializing in organic produce than in a regular supermarket.

*Navel oranges, although theoretically seedless, do occasionally produce a viable seed or two.

Green Plants, Not Fruiting Ones

Do note that most fruit seeds will produce only “foliage plants”: there is little chance of these plants ever flowering and fruiting under indoor conditions. And if they do, you’ll have to be very patient. Citrus, for example, will flower and produce fruit indoors, but rarely in less than 10 to 15 years. The coffee plant (Coffea arabica) is an exception. If you can find a fresh coffee berry rather the usual roasted (and therefore dead) bean, you can harvest and sow the bean inside and your little coffee plant could be bearing fruit in as little as 3 or 4 years.

How to Sow Tropical Fruit Seeds Indoors 

Ideally, you’d start your seeds indoors in the spring or summer, seasons when the light is plentiful and atmospheric humidity is excellent. However, you can do so even in the winter under a LED or fluorescent grow light, perhaps with the help of a heat mat to ensure beneficial heat, as it can be quite cool on a windowsill at that season and cool temperatures hinder germination.

Hand harvesting a seed from a lemon.
Start by collecting and cleaning the seeds. Photo: cleverly.me

Harvest the seeds from the fruit and wash them in water to remove any flesh. There’s no need to dry the seeds out before sowing them, although you often see that useless bit of information on the Internet. In several cases, drying the seeds before planting can slow down germination or even prevent it.

Fill a pot or tray with slightly moist potting or seedling soil mix to about 1 in (2 cm) from the top. Dig a few holes about 3 times deeper than the seed is high into the mix and drop a seed into each one. Cover it with potting mix. (For large seeds, like the avocado, you only need to bury the bottom half only of the seed, not the whole thing*.) Now water lightly, just enough to settle the soil a bit.

*You can also get an avocado seed to sprout over a glass of water. Read Growing an Avocado Indoors for more details.

Illustration of different homemade mini-greenhouses.
Start the seeds “under glass.” Ill.: Claire Tourigny

Cover the pot with a clear plastic dome or bag or some other type of mini greenhouse to maintain high humidity and a more constant temperature, two conditions necessary for good germination. Expose this mini-greenhouse to warm conditions—70 to 80 ˚F/ 21 to 27 ° C—and moderate lighting. No need for direct sun yet, however: not as long as the pot is inside its mini-greenhouse; otherwise it can overheat.

Germination can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 or 4 months. Normally, no watering will be necessary as long as the pot is “under glass” (inside its clear plastic shelter), but if the potting soil begins to appear dry, turning pale brown, add a spoon or two of water.

Date palm seedling in a clear plastic glass.
Date palm seedlings start life with only a single grasslike leaf, yet will become a giant palm over time. Photo: sablinstanislav, depositphotos

When green shoots appear, that means germination has occurred. Wait 2 or 3 weeks more, then start acclimatizing the seedlings to indoor conditions. To do so, gradually open the mini greenhouse over a week or two so the plants can become used to the drier atmosphere outside. After germination, there is no longer any need to keep the pot warm either: regular room temperatures are now quite acceptable. Only when the mini greenhouse has been completely removed, however, should you expose the seedlings to direct sunlight.

If there are several seedlings in the pot, this is also a good time to pot them up individually if that is the way you intend to grow them.

A young coffee plant makes a wonderful foliage plant. Photo: California Tropicals

From now on, what was a seedling is now a houseplant in its own right and it will need intense light, normal indoor temperatures, good humidity, regular watering as soon as the soil feels dry to the touch, a bit of fertilizer every now and then and other aspects of basic houseplant care. This will give you a beautiful foliage plant that will grow little by little … and who knows? Maybe after a decade or two, you just might get some fruit!

8 comments on “Starting Houseplants from Tropical Fruit

  1. I have a friend who went hunting & told me about a wild lemon tree with bitter fruit that he found in the woods.
    I ask for some seeds, he gave me small plants, he found around the tree.
    , They were Trifoliate Orange (Poncirus trifoliata) not a lemon.
    “Dragon Orange Tree”
    “Trifoliate Orange (Poncirus trifoliata), also known as the “hardy orange” or “flying dragon,” is the most cold hardy of all citrus. It is a large, deciduous shrub that produces an unusually sour, downy fruit considered to be nearly inedible when raw but medicinally beneficial and delicious when cooked. Nov 1, 2019”
    I have fruit, if you would like seeds, let me know what I need to do to get some to you. I do not know Canadian law on mailing
    seeds. I know people who use dry arrangements love the green branches with the thorns. Here one hundred miles of the coast the Trifoliate Orange (Poncirus trifoliata) will live outside year around.
    Another good article. https://www.phillyorchards.org/2019/11/01/plant-spotlight-trifoliate-orange/

    • For those interested in JOLJ’s Poncirus trifoliatus seeds, I’ve grown this plant from seed myself and found it easy to grow.

      • We used it only as understock. Almost all of the dwarf citrus that we grew were on the same Cuban shaddock understock. ‘Meyer’ lemon and ‘Seville’ sour orange were not grafted, but grown from cutting, on their own roots. A few odd cultivars of citrus, which we grew only for ‘collectors’, were grown on trifoliate orange understock because they were less compatible with Cuban shaddock.

  2. Thanks for sharing this! I never knew you could grow a coffee bean indoors! : ) As a coffee drinker, I may have to look into this.

  3. marianwhit

    I have grown citrus plants because I like the leaves in Asian cooking. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/fruits/citrus/are-citrus-leaves-edible.htm

  4. R W Watson

    Very informative article with beautiful photos. Thanks for clarifying that some seeds (like banana) are not viable. I have seen too many comments telling you to pick out banana seeds with toothpick and plant them. Much appreciated!

  5. When my oldest son was younger we grew a grapefruit and an apple from seed. It was a fun project for us to observe the progress of the seedlings. They survived for several years before succumbing to our cold climate.

  6. Pomegranate is a deciduous tree that prefers a bit of chill in the winter, rather than a tropical. A friend of mine in college grew a few from seed, and they actually did rather well. I was surprised. I do not know how well they did in the long term. Even if the performed well as house plants, I would be inclined to put them out for winter, so that they can go dormant and refoliate in spring. Also, I would be concerned about date palms, since they like warmth and somewhat bright sunlight. Like other palms, their juvenile foliage tolerates some degree of shade, but really likes to be exposed to warm desert like weather. Citrus and avocado do well as houseplants, but as you say, will not produce fruit like they do in the garden. If they did, it might not be true to type. ‘Rangpur’ lime is supposedly true to type, but that is unusual among citrus. ‘Meyer’ lemon is so genetically confused, that there is no telling what its seedlings might do. Also, the juvenile growth of some citrus seedlings is wickedly thorny. Trees purchased at nurseries are grafted with adult growth, which is less thorny, and ready to bloom and produce fruit. However, at least some grapefruit seedlings look very similar or identical to adult growth, with richly glossy leaves and diminutive thorns. Avocado seedlings grow very fast and ‘vertically’ for the first few years. Such growth may be awkward and difficult to work with, but can be an asset for large rooms. Like citrus, nursery grown trees are grafted with more compact adult growth that is ready to bloom and produce fruit.

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