Cherimoya

Cherimoya by Heather Diane

The cherimoya [cher-uh-moi-uh] is a species of Annona (also known as a sugar-apple) native to the Andean-highland valleys of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. The fruit is oval, often slightly oblate, with a smooth or slightly tuberculated skin. The fruit flesh is white and creamy, and has numerous dark brown seeds embedded in it. Mark Twain called the cherimoya ‘the most delicious fruit known to men.’

The Moche culture of Peru had a fascination with agriculture and represented fruits and vegetables in their art. Cherimoyas were often depicted in their ceramics. The name originates from the Quechua word chirimuya, which means ‘cold seeds,’ because the plant grows at high altitudes. The tree thrives throughout the tropics at altitudes of 1,300 to 2,600 m (4,300 to 8,500 ft). Though sensitive to frost, it must have periods of cool temperatures or the tree will gradually go dormant. The indigenous inhabitants of the Andes say that although the cherimoya cannot stand snow, it does like to see it in the distance.

It is cultivated in many places throughout the Americas, including California, where it was introduced in 1871, and Hawaii. In the Mediterranean region, it is cultivated mainly in southern Spain, where it was introduced before 1751; from there it was carried to Italy and lsla de Madeira (Portugal), but now can be also found in Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel. The first planting in Italy was in 1797 and it became a favored crop in the Province of Reggio Calabria. It is also grown in Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand.

The fruit is fleshy and soft, sweet, white in color, with a sherbet-like texture, which gives it its secondary name, custard apple. Some characterize the flavor as a blend of banana, pineapple, papaya, peach, and strawberry. Others describe it as tasting like commercial bubblegum. Similar in size to a grapefruit, it has large, glossy, dark seeds that are easily removed. When ripe, the skin is green and gives slightly to pressure, similar to the avocado. Large fruit which are uniformly green, without cracks or mostly browned skin, are best. Unripe cherimoyas will ripen at room temperature, when they will yield to gentle pressure. Ripe fruits keep better in the refrigerator.

Different varieties have different flavors, textures, and shapes. Shapes can range from imprint areoles, flat areoles, slight bump or point areoles, full areoles, and combinations of these shapes. The flavor of the flesh ranges from mellow sweet to tangy or acidic sweet, with variable suggestions of pineapple, banana, pear, papaya, strawberry or other berry, and apple, depending on the variety. The usual characterization of flavor is ‘pineapple/banana’ flavor, similar to the flavor of the Monstera deliciosa fruit.

When the fruit is soft-ripe/fresh-ripe and still has the fresh, fully mature greenish/greenish-yellowish skin color, the texture is like that of a soft-ripe pear and papaya. If the skin is allowed to turn fully brown, yet the flesh has not fermented or gone ‘bad,’ then the texture can be custard-like. Often, when the skin turns brown at room temperature, the fruit is no longer good for human consumption. Also, the skin turns brown if it has been under normal refrigeration for too long – a day or two.

Fresh cherimoya contains about 15% sugar (about 60kcal/100g) and some vitamin C (up to 20 mg/100g). Cherimoya and other members of the Annonaceae family also contain small amounts of neurotoxic alkaloids, such as annonacin, which appear to be linked to atypical Parkinsonism in Guadeloupe. The seeds are poisonous if crushed open. An extractive of the bark can induce paralysis if injected. The flowers are hermaphroditic and have a mechanism to avoid self pollination. The short-lived flowers open as female, then progress to a later, male stage in a matter of hours. This requires a separate pollinator that not only can collect the pollen from flowers in the male stage, but also deposit it in flowers in the female stage.

Quite often, the female flower is receptive in the early part of the first day, but pollen is not produced in the male stage until the late afternoon of the second day. Honey bees are not good pollinators, for example, because their bodies are too large to fit between the fleshy petals of the female flower. Female flowers have the petals only partially separated, and the petals separate wide when they become male flowers. So the bees pick up pollen from the male flowers, but are unable to transfer this pollen to the female flowers. The beetles which pollinate cherimoya in its land of origin are much smaller than bees. For fruit production outside the cherimoya’s native region, cultivators must either rely upon the wind to spread pollen in dense orchards or else pollinate flowers by hand. Complicating matters is the notoriously short lifespan of cherimoya pollen.

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