Lychee, dragonfruit, starfruit and specialty varieties of more familiar fruits, such as mangoes, are providing growing support to the tropical category, especially with the onset of fall.

“Everyone knows mangoes’ popularity, but do they know that right behind them are papayas?” said Mary Ostlund, director of marketing for Brooks Tropicals Inc., Homestead, Fla.

“In terms of growth, papayas can’t be ignored. And our sales of Caribbean Red papayas, grown in Belize, prove it.”

Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Frieda’s Inc. thrives on products from outside the mainstream, said Hazel Kelly, company spokeswoman.

She said dragonfruit, whose peak season in the U.S. is fall, is gaining a strong following.

“That item, while it’s real specialty, is gaining momentum, as far as consumer trends,” she said.

What’s the attraction?

“They’re like no other fruit,” Kelly said.

“Of course, most of the fruits we sell are like that. They’re pink on the inside and look like little pink blowfish. The outside skins is kind of smooth and leathery. The inside is very tender and juicy, kiwifruit-like fresh. It’s speckled throughout. They come with different colors. The flavor is mildly sweet with maybe a hint of earthiness.”

The unique qualities of the fruit attract new customers, said Louie Carricarte, president and owner of Unity Groves Corp., Homestead.

“Once they try it, like, for example, dragonfruit, it just looks so unique, people want to try it,” he said.

“Once it’s on the shelves, it usually sells. They buy it at least just to try it. Lychees have become very mainstream the last few years. Once people try it, they really love it.”

Carricarte’s company also offers Thai bananas.

“It’s smaller and sweeter than a big banana,” he said.

“It’s like a big banana, but you can eat the whole banana. It’s about the half the size. And the flowers from the tree (are) used in stew and soups.”

Green-skinned avocados also have a strong following, said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission, Irvine.

“We have a number of retailers who like to offer different varieties, and consumers are bumping into some of these so-called ‘minor’ varieties at farmers markets,” she said.

“There’s also some good traction for fuertes, which used to be the main varieties. There’s definitely secondary display options to put some variety in the category.”

Mango shippers and marketers note the increasing number of varieties of their fruit on the market.

“The Indian varieties — the alphonso and the kesar — and the Pakistan varieties are coming along,” said William Watson, executive director of the National Mango Board, Orlando, Fla.

“What we are seeing is Brazil, for example, increasing their acres of ataulfo, the yellow mangoes.”

That’s a trend that should continue, Watson said.

“You know it’s going to come out with color in the marketplace,” he said.

“The parameters of production are relatively small. I think over time, we’re going to see more variety in the market — less red blush, more yellow or green. I think we’re going to see some more of that in the future.”

The tommy atkins remains the dominant mango variety, but others, such as the keitt, kent and ataulfo, are gaining followings, said Michael Warren, president of Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Central American Produce Inc.

“In the long run, you’ll see mangoes that people will be recognizing for their eating quality, not just their outward appearance,” he said.