Barefoot Gardener: Cherimoya
In describing the taste of cherimoya, Sir Clements Markham stated, “Its taste, indeed, surpasses that of every other fruit, and Haenke was quite right when he called it the masterpiece of Nature.”
The cherimoya, a delicious, sweet fruit primarily known as a dessert delicacy, never gained the commercial success of the banana, avocado, pineapple or mango. In fact, it is relatively unknown in most northern markets and even here in Hawaiʻi, where cherimoya grows readily in the upper elevations. Many people have never heard of, let alone tasted, this fantastic fruit.
Cherimoya (Annona cherimola) is endemic to the highland regions of Ecuador and Peru where it can be found growing wild as high as 6,000 feet in elevation. Though it is a tropical plant and does not tolerate frost, it needs cool periods to prevent dormancy. Native peoples of the Andes say, “The cherimoya can’t stand snow, but it likes to see it in the distance.” In fact, the fruit’s name comes from the Quechua word “chirimuya,” which means “cold seeds,” as it germinates well in cool temperatures and high elevations.
Cherimoya trees will reach 15 to 25 feet in height depending on the richness of the soil. Though it will fruit at low elevations, it flourishes between 3,500 and 6,000 feet. Its light green velvety leaves and yellow blossoms make it an attractive addition to any yard.
One challenge, however, is pollination. The male and female parts of the flowers do not mature at the same time. This results in pollen being shed after the pistils have ceased receptivity. Additionally, the blooms attract few insects, so hand pollination is usually recommended to ensure a good yield. This does not mean that your tree won’t fruit without hand pollination. It probably will, especially if there is a beehive or apiary nearby. Hand pollination simply maximizes the chances of abundant production.
Seedlings can be purchased, however, the most desirable method of propagation is to graft cuttings of a cherimoya tree to the rootstock of another cherimoya, or to the rootstock of a custard apple or sugar apple (both are relatives of cherimoya). Grafting practices used for citrus have been successfully utilized with cherimoya. A good step-by-step grafting instructional can be found online.
Cherimoya likes a rich, well-drained loamy soil with a pH between 6.5 and 7.6. When preparing a hole for rootstock or seedlings, follow the same preparation practices for planting papayas (refer to the concise planting instructions in the most recent Barefoot Gardener column, “Perfect Papayas”), making sure to put plenty of cinders in the bottom of the planting hole to aid drainage. The location should be sunny and sheltered from wind.
Fertilize young trees every six weeks with well-rotted steer or horse manure. Irrigate young trees every two to three weeks from May through December, then allow the tree to go dormant between January and April. After about three or four years, the tree will begin to bear fruit. On trees of fruiting size, discontinue irrigation once the fruit is mature.
The mature fruits look like green, closed artichokes. Harvesting can be hit or miss, as there is no readily apparent coloration signal indicating the fruit is harvest-ready. There may be a slight bronzing, which indicates ripeness, however, in cooler climates bronzing may not appear. If the fruit is picked too early, it won’t ripen. If it is left on the tree too long, the flesh can become mealy, gritty and discolored.
One way to know if cherimoya is ready to pick is to smell the fruit for sweetness, though obviously this is difficult with fruits higher up on the tree. You can also look for increased surface smoothness and a cream color appearing between skin segments. When harvesting fruit, cut the stem. Do not pull the fruit from the tree.
Once picked, cherimoya ripens best at room temperature. When it is fully ripe, it will be slightly soft but not squishy. When the skin turns brownish, it will be ready to eat, having a sweet custard-like taste and texture. Don’t eat the shiny black seeds though. Like apples, the seeds are poisonous.
One of my favorite cherimoya treats is popsicles. Cut the cherimoya, remove the seeds and scoop the flesh into a blender. Pulse it a few times and pour it into an ice cube tray. Put toothpicks in each cube and freeze. This makes a healthy treat that kids love and a cool refresher on hot days. A fun variation on this recipe is to add a dash of cinnamon to the blended fruit before freezing.