Naranjilla: Jewel of the Andean Sierras

One of our favorite Andean fruits to grow is naranjilla (Solanum quitoense). Also known as lulo, naranjilla is a Solanaceae (nightshade) family plant that produces an edible fruit popular in Ecuador and Columbia. Fruits have orange, fuzzy skin and tart, green flesh.

Naranjilla is rich in vitamins, proteins, minerals & contains pepsin — an enzyme the assists in the digestion of protein. 

Naranjilla is tasty & versatile. It is commonly enjoyed as a juice, and in pies, jellies, jams, cheesecake, wine, fruit salad, cake, ice cream, savory meat stews (like the Ecuadorian dishes seco de chivo & seco de pollo), and as a flavoring in a variety of drinks — including Colada Morada & Naranjillazo (an alcoholic drink). 

The plant is a perennial, herbaceous shrub that grows 1–1.5m tall with spreading, brittle stems. It has fuzzy, dark green, purple, and white veined leaves. The pale purple flowers are also covered in hairs. 

Naranjillas are easy to pick, though the stiff hairs on the stem & fruits can be irritating to the skin. It’s best to wear gloves and rub off the fuzz with a towel or thick gloves and then rinse the remaining hairs off with water before handling with bare skin. 

Fruits are best when fully ripe — which is when they are slightly soft and bright orange (though they still may be marbled with a bit of green). 

Naranjilla grows best in fertile, well drained slopes. It prefers soil that holds moisture, but drains well enough so that the roots aren’t water logged. It is particularly sensitive to salt. 

Plants are propagated by seeds, cuttings, or grafts onto rootstock from other species, including Solanum macranthum & S. mammosum. Seeds germinate readily and cuttings root easily — especially when taken from older, slightly woody stems. 

Pruning old woody stems after they have fruited encourages regrowth and helps improve fruit size. The plant responds well to being fertilized. 

The plants need considerable moisture. Even moderately dry conditions will slow its growth. The plant doesn’t grow well in temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius and above 30 degrees Celsius. It is sensitive to frost.

Altitude, on the other hand, does not seem to be a limiting factor for naranjilla plants. They have been grown in Ecuador at 2,100 m (in our gardens) and near sea level in New Zealand and California. 

According to the book, The Lost Crops of the Incas, “the species is unusually uniform for a cultivated plant.” It states that “two geographically separated varieties are recognized.” The spineless quitoensevariety is found in southern Columbia and Ecuador (this is the kind we have). The variety septentrionalehas spines and typically grows in central Columbia and Costa Rica at altitudes of 1,000-1,900 m. 

In the Andes, naranjilla is general grown on rainy mountain slopes. In areas with year-round moderate temperatures, fruits will produce the whole year. 

The plants are extremely susceptible to root-knot nematodes (Meloidogyne species). Naranjillas are a perennial and could continue to bear fruit for longer periods, but are often killed off by nematodes within a couple of years. Naranjilla are also favored by insects, including a variety of beetles and weevils, who will chew the leaves. The plants can be susceptible to bacterial wilt, fungal infections, root & stem rots, and viruses. 

Lost Crops of the Incas, states that growing a cover or rotation crop of certain plants, like velvet bean or Indigofera species, can help to eliminate nematode infestations. Another possibility is grafting naranjilla to nematode resistant root stock of related plants. 

Naranjillas grow readily in our gardens. Plants volunteer here and there and will often produce a decent amount of fruit, though they do tend succumb to nematodes fairly quickly. 

Our favorite ways to enjoy naranjillas include juices, muffins, jello, hot sauces and simply halving the fruit & scooping the raw pulp out with a spoon. 

Naranjilla Juice

Naranjilla juice is delicious on its own, but can also be utilized in a variety of recipes. The pulp of 12 naranjillas makes about 1 cup of juice (strained).

To make: Cut naranjillas in half. Use a spoon to scoop out pulp and put into a blender. Blend well & strain out seeds. 

Juice can be sweetened with panela, to taste, if desired. 

Colada de Avena con Naranjilla

Coladas are beverages typically made with fruits & spices and thickened with a starch, in this case oats. Our take on this popular Ecuadorian fruit & oat drink is inspired by food blogger, Laylita. (Check out her version here.) 

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup oats
  • 1 cup naranjilla juice (about 6 naranjillas) 
  • 4 cups water
  • 3/4 cup panela, grated 
  • 1/2 Tbsp cinnamon powder 

Directions:

Cover the oats in about a cup of water, in a bowl. Let soak for about 45 minutes then add the mixture to a blender & blend well. Strain the mixture and set the liquid aside. 

Add the naranjilla juice, 4 cups of water, oat liquid, panela, & cinnamon to a pan and whisk together. Bring to a boil & then reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring the mixture occasionally as it heats. Once the drink has thickened a bit, remove from heat.  

We like to serve this drink hot on cold rainy mountain nights, but it can also be enjoyed cold. 

Add more water, if you want a thinner drink and less panela, to taste, if desired. 

If you live outside of the Andean sierras, you likely won’t find naranjillas available for sale. Naranjillas have had little commercial development, despite being quite popular in the Northern Andes. 

This is due, at least in part to the fact that the fruit would likely be a challenge to produce in a wide scale. It is probably limited to a fairly narrow range of habitats due to its specific moisture and temperature requirements. It may also need a specialized pollinator. 

If you are fortunate enough to visit or live in an area where naranjilla grows, be sure to give this sweet-tart fruit a try. It’s certainly one of our favorites. 

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