Custard Apple: A Highland Gardener’s Delight
This time of the year in Costa Rica, many local markets and supermarkets offer custard apples (Annona reticulata), called anonas in Spanish.
The custard apple is believed to originate in the West Indies, but it was distributed in early times through Central America to southern Mexico. It has long been cultivated and naturalized as far south as Peru and Brazil, and is also grown in the Bahamas, Bermuda, southern Florida and India.
Visitors and locals alike enjoy savoring these delectable fruits that grow in the highlands of the country. The fruits can be recognized by their green, heart-shaped appearance with smooth scales on the skin. When the fruit is ripe, it turns brown and the stem is easily pulled out from the fruit. Inside is a thick, creamy white layer of sweet, custardlike pulp that contains black seeds.
The custard apple can be eaten right in the hand with a spoon or prepared by separating the seeds from the pulp. It makes a wonderful blended drink, ice cream or custard dessert mixed with bananas and milk. This nutritional fruit provides good portions of carbohydrates, calcium, phosphorus and vitamin C. Highland gardeners can grow custard apples from seeds collected in local markets.
It’s a good idea to select seeds from the best fruits, and plant them in pots or plastic nursery bags with prepared potting soil. When the seeds germinate in seven to 15 days, move the new custard apple seedlings into a sunny site and water them once or twice a week. When the seedlings reach a height of about 30 to 40 centimeters, transplant them to permanent sites outside.
These trees grow four to 10 meters tall, so give them at least five meters of spacing between other trees or dwellings. To help maintain a compact tree that makes harvesting easier, prune young top growth once a year.
Costa Rican farmers usually plant custard apples in pastures and fields in full sun for best growth and production. These trees do well in a wide range of soil but grow best in rich, fertile loam that is well drained. Adding compost around the trees, along with small amounts of limestone and soluble organic fertilizers, will boost their growth and production.
If custard apples are well cared for, they can produce in three to five years.
It’s interesting to note that the kernel of each seed is toxic, and has been used for centuries as a natural insecticide. The leaves have also been used for this purpose; in fact, the juice from the leaves is reported to kill head lice.
Gardeners in the coastal and mid-range elevations of the country can enjoy planting and harvesting the biriba (Rollinia mucosa), or wild sugar apple. Biriba is a relative of the custard apple from Brazil that has adapted well here, and provides a delicious custardlike fruit with a sub-acid taste reminiscent of banana and pineapple. The fruits are usually bigger than custard apples and have large scales that protrude from the fruit, which turns yellow when ripe. They can be planted from seed, just like custard apples. I’ll be highlighting this fruit later in the year when the harvest begins in December.
Rare fruit collectors also enjoy planting other Annona species, such as the cherimoya (A. cherimola) from Peru, which is perhaps the most prized for flavor and size. The sugar apple (A. squamosa) and atemoya (A. squamosa x A. cherimola) are also highly prized for the home orchard.
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