BY NORIS LEDESMA
FAIRCHILD TROPICAL BOTANIC GARDEN
As published in the Miami Herald
The tropical apricot (Mammea americana) is one of the best kept tropical fruit secrets of Tropical America. No relation to the true temperate apricot of the northern climes, this fruit is a bit of a challenge, but worth the effort. A handsome evergreen, it resembles a southern magnolia at first glance and naturally forms a pyramidal, pleasing canopy. The tree is densely foliaged with glossy, leathery leaves of hunter green. The tree is a great asset in the home landscape that will provide a point of pride among your neighbors. Native to the West Indies and northern South America, the tree produces large, round brown fruit, with a deep orange flesh.
The flesh is highly fragrant with a flavor of apricot and berries and can be eaten fresh or used to prepare jellies, preserves, or sherbets. The fruit is eaten while the flesh is still firm and the fruit will maintain their attractive flesh color for hours or even days. A cut fruit can be left on the kitchen counter and it will not brown. Now try that with apple or with the temperate apricot.
On the island of Hispaniola, which is home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the tree and fruit are highly esteemed. Towering walls of green grace the home gardens across the island, lending a true Caribbean flavor wherever its shade touches. The flowers are used in preparing the liqueur Eau de Créole, another signature flavor of the islands. In Jamaica fruit are cooked with wine and sugar and served as a warm and cold dessert. Here at home the fruit has the perfect consistency for pies, tarts and preserves. But, perhaps the best use of the fruit is fresh out of hand like the people of Central America and northern South America.
Propagation of the tropical apricot for the home garden is typically from seed. The tree is not commonly found in nurseries here in South Florida, but with a bit of perseverance one can locate and purchase a healthy tree. The next hurdle is that the tree comes in a male and female version. This may sound romantic, but it makes the growing of a seedling a risky business. It can be quite a blow to wait for eight years or so only to find out that your tree is a male and will produce no fruit. The tree itself is no less attractive in the home landscape, but it will not produce fruit.
The best solution is to grow a grafted tree. Specialty nurseries in South Florida are beginning to propagate known female selections and these trees are becoming more common fare about town. At present the varieties ‘Redlands’ and ‘Kay Sweeney’ can be purchased on a routine basis. In the next few years there will be more quality selections coming available from local hobbyists and the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. A quality grafted tree will fruit even in isolation, although a male tree in close proximity may improve yields. A grafted tree will begin to flower and fruit in three to five years after planting.
The tropical apricot grows best in a fertile, well drained soil with high organic matter content, but will tolerate heavy, poor, acid or alkaline soils. The tree should be planted in the full sun and one should also plant in the warmest locations. Young trees will be killed by temperatures below 30F for only a few hours. Young trees will prefer regular applications of water, but mature trees can do quite nicely with no watering. The tree will thrive in our monsoon climate, remaining green and healthy throughout the drought months. Cold sensitivilty is probably the most serious limitation to the establishment and young trees should be protected on the coldest nights of the winter. Small trees can be covered by a sheet or with a cardboard box, taking care to not let the leaves touch the sheet.
Addition of plant mulch to the soil surface will improve water-holding capacity, nutrient retention and availability and soil structure. Fertilization is best done by three applications per year in March, July and September with an 8-3-9 or other fruit tree formulation. Do not fertilize after September, as you will make the tree more susceptible to cold damage. You must go into the winter months with the tree calm and prepared for cold.
In southern Florida the tropical apricot ripen from late mostly in the summer and fall and they fall to the ground when ripe. They can also be picked when they reach full size and show an external color change from greenish to orange brown, but this will take some practice to master. The tropical apricot is a tree well worth the home owner’s investment of time and worry. With just a little care, the tree will reward the gardener with a beautiful landscape and delicious fare for the summer table.
Noris Ledesma is curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.