Sweet Southern Cherry TreeMalpighia emarginata
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The Sweet Southern Cherry Tree, also called the Barbados cherry and the acerola, is renowned for the enormous amounts of vitamin C its fruits contain. These round, red ‘cherries’ have a delicious tangy flavor, and they are full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are great eaten raw, stewed, strained to make a sauce, or turned into juice and drinks. This large evergreen shrub has oval green leaves, a bushy habit, and beautiful dark-pink flowers. From flower to fruit is just 3 weeks, and a mature tree can carry 60 pounds of delicious fruit. Self-pollinating, it is very easy to grow indoors or outdoors.
Full sun is best for the Sweet Southern Cherry Tree, which can take just a couple of degrees of frost. It grows in any well-drained soil, including alkaline soils and clays, and in pH values down to 5.5. Any pests or diseases are minor, and simple trimming will keep it neat and compact. In cooler areas grow in a container, bringing it indoors when frost threatens, and during the coldest months.
Whatever you call it – and the choices are many – the Sweet Southern Cherry Tree is an amazing plant. Barbados cherry, acerola, West Indian cherry, native cherry, cereza de la sabana, cerise de St. Domingue, shimarucu, the list goes on, but in any language it’s a remarkable tree. A small evergreen tree with attractive green leaves, Malphigia emarginata – as the botanist’s have it – bears a large crop of bright-red cherry-like fruits, typically ripening in May and the sporadically through the winter, that have a long tradition of use by people of the Caribbean. What for? Well, these ‘cherries’ are packed with Vitamin C, far more than any other fruit, and only matched by rose hips, which don’t taste anything like as nice. The fruits can be eaten raw, or stewed with as much sugar as you feel you need to soften the acidity, or turned into a powerful juice that could protect you from the common cold, coughs, sore throats and even diarrhea. With over 2,000 mg of Vitamin C in 100 grams of fruit (that’s about 3½ ounces) you get a huge, beneficial dose from just a little juice. It’s packed full of minerals and vitamins too, and that same handful is only 60 calories. If you enjoy keeping yourself healthy with garden produce, you need this wonderful bush. It can be grown indoors as an edible houseplant, and even turned into a fascinating miniature tree using basic bonsai techniques.
The Sweet Southern Cherry Tree is, when growing outdoors, a rounded evergreen bushy shrub or small tree, reaching 15 to 20 feet tall and wide. It can be pruned and maintained at a much smaller size with regular attention. The stems tend to be brittle, and it is very well-branched, with many small side branches. The leaves are between 1 and 3 inches long, simple ovals, with a dark green color. There is a fringe of tiny hairs along the edges of the leaves which some people can find irritating to the skin. The flowers are very attractive, carried in clusters of up to 5, and they are deep pink, with fringed, spoon-shaped petals. The flowers measure about 1-inch across, and a tree in bloom is a very attractive garden feature. The fruits develop incredibly quickly, and are ripe within 3 to 4 weeks of blooming. The usual blooming season is in April, with a crop in May, but that can be delayed if the weather is dry. Sporadic extra crops can develop later, all the way to December.
The fruit looks like a bright red cherry, about 1 inch across, with a smooth, shiny skin. Inside is not one but three small seeds, which can be eaten or not, as you choose. The texture is usually firm and more apple-like, and the flavor is also a little like an apple, with a strong tangy taste and varying sweetness. Harvest when the yellow fruits turn red. They can be stored for a few days. The fruit is very high in Vitamin C, vitamins and antioxidants. Only rose-hips have more Vitamin C (but they are not as tasty). It is in the kitchen that it excels, stewed as a dessert, or cooked with sugar and strained to make a delicious, bright-red sauce for ice cream and desserts – so much more healthy than regular store toppings. It can also be juiced and drunk, with or without added sweeteners, or the juice mixed with other sweet fruits for delicious drinks, smoothies and cocktails. Be inspired to experiment – in some countries it is being sold mixed with grapefruit as a commercial soft drink. You can expect an annual crop of between 25 and 60 pounds of fruit from a mature tree.
This tough and drought-resistant tree is a great addition to your garden in hot zones. It can also be grown as an indoor shrub, especially in a sunny porch or sunroom. It can be trimmed to have a short central trunk and even turned into a bonsai tree that will have both flowers and fruit. It could be kept outdoors for most of the year, just brought inside when frost threatened, or during the coldest months.
The Sweet Southern Cherry Tree grows well in zones 9, 10 and 11, as well as in tropical countries. Young plants can take just a degree or two of frost, perhaps to 30 degrees, while older trees are a little tougher, surviving 28 degrees for a brief time.
Full sun is best for this tree, so place it in a sunny window, or out in the open garden. It grows well in most soils, preferring neutral and alkaline soils. In very acidic soils (pH below 5.5), lime should be added to the soil every few years to keep the leaves from turning yellow. The soil should be well-drained, and once established this tree is drought resistant.
The Sweet Southern Cherry Tree is easy to grow, vigorous and fast-growing. It can be trimmed at any time, with the goal of maintaining a more upright form. Trim back after the first harvest to keep it smaller and more compact. Trees kept indoors should be hand-pollinated, using an artist’s brush and going from flower to flower – play bee! Outdoor trees will attract many bees, which will do the job, and you don’t need two trees or cross-pollination for a full crop. Although some pests and diseases are reported, they are rarely of much importance.
Malpighia emarginata is native to the islands of the eastern Caribbean, including St. Croix, Barbados, Antigua and Trinidad, as well as Curacao and the coast of South America. After being planted there it now grows wild in Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. It was introduced into Florida (from Cuba) in 1887 by Pliny Ward Reasoner, a young man sent by the USDA to survey the state for potential agriculture. He introduced many plants through the Reasoner Nursery, before dying at just 25 of yellow fever.
For something different, tasty and very healthy, the Sweet Southern Cherry is a natural choice. Growing indoor fruit is hard – except with this easy tree. But order now because it is always hard to find stock of this unique bush, and it will all be gone very soon.