The Antidesma (Antidesma bunius)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

 

BY NORIS LEDESMA

FAIRCHILD TROPICAL BOTANIC GARDEN

As published in the Miami Herald

Florida is far from exhausting its list of possibile fruit for testing and the antidesma now takes center stage. Dr. David Fairchild, namesake of Tropical Botanic Garden,  first brought the antidesma to Florida in 1900s from one of his expeditions to the Philippines. He intended to bring back a berry than can grow in South Florida to please the new residents coming from north of the United States. It has been over a century and the antidesma still grows in relative obscutiry, being kept mainly as an ornamental.

There are more than 140 members of the genus Antidesma growing wild in the tropics of the old world, and of the several which have been tried here,  Antidesma bunius is the one that has the most potential as a fruit tree.  The antidesma is native to Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and northern Australia. It is found wild in the wetter parts of  Himalayas southwards and eastwards, in  Sri Lanka, Burma and Malaysia. It has several names in Java and the  Philippines including bignay, banauac, booni, bugnay or bignai.

 

It grows into an attractive tree with dark green and glossy leaves pleasant to touch. The fruits normally appear during the summer and sometimes extend its season until November. The fruiting season is typically long, extending from late summer through the fall and winter, since some trees flower later than others. Fruiting is in clusters and the fruit ripen unevenly with each bunch over several weeks. It is a spectacular display, with the clusters hanging in large racimes turning from green and white and then to red and black. The trees are highly productive, with plenty of fruit for birds and humans alike.

The fruits are pleasantly acid and tender, with a similar taste to the blueberries. When harvesting the fruit it is recommended to wear gloves because the ripe fruit have red juice that will stain your fingers. In Malaysia the fruit are used as a natural dye. In Java they report that the bark is used medicinally, and in fact some of the natives use antidesma bark to cure for snake bites. The fruit are also used by native Javanese for syrups and also for putting into brandy.  Dietetically, the fruits are rated as good source of calcium and contain a fair amount of iron.

Antidesma has both male and female trees. The male trees will not produce fruit and are not recommended for planting, unless you do not want fruit. Most female trees usually bear sufficient quantities of fruit without having a male tree. The best method to propagate antidesma trees is by air layers, cuttings or grafting. Seeds sometimes takes nine months or more to germinate and there is no quarantee of getting a female or for quality. There are trees available in select local nurseries.

They generally grow well in most types of soils. Some minor element deficiencies might occur in alkaline soils, although this can be corrected with nutritional sprays. Antidesma trees are relatively hardy and easy to grow. Mature trees will survive temperature down to about 26 degrees without major damage, but young trees will sustain injury at 29 degrees.  With ample moisture and good light, it is a very fast growing tree and can start fruiting within 4 to 5 years. Once well established, antidesma trees have good drought tolerance and can go for several weeks without irrigation during our dry season. Trees grow well close to salt water.

Antidesma is a vigorous tree with a tendency for producing drooping branches. It needs to be pruned annually to control the size, shape and to bring the best yield and fruit quality.  Prune the antidesma annually keeping it in the shape of an open bush so that all branches are bathed in sun to stimulate fruiting. Grafted trees normally remain bushy and make a good wind break as well. Antidesma trees can be adapted well for container culture. They grow well in 20- or 30-gallon containers producing acceptable quantity of fruit.

There are typically multiple harvests within a single year.  Ripe antidesma fruits have short shelf life and you must watch your tree closely so as not to lose the crop. If harvesting for eating fresh one should let the fruit turn black, when they have a pleasant sweet and tart flavor. The best way to enjoy the antidesma fruit is to walk out into the garden and strip off the ripe fruits into your mouth. For processing you can use ripe (black) fruit or can be pick the fruit when they are still red. It is better to process the fruit into a juice and freeze it for a final product. For the ones who enjoy cooking, the juice makes an exceptional jam, pie, jelly, or even wine, or it can be enjoyed in its pure form. So plant, care for and enjoy the antidesma, a Florida legacy worth the investment.

Noris Ledesma is Curator of Tropical Fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden