The South American sapote was introduced into South Florida from the Amazon Basin in 1964. The first crop of large 'top-shaped', orange-fleshed fruit appeared nine years later. This medium-size ornamental tree, with big bold attractive 'lollipop'- shaped leaves, appears adapted to our warmer areas where several specimens now fruit regularly. It is thought that this interesting fruit from South America warrants further planting, both for the beauty of the tree and the quality of the sweet mango-melon-like flavored fruit.
The South American sapote is in the family Bombacaceae along with the kapok (Ceiba pentandra), the balsa (Ochroma lagopus) and the durian (Durio zibethinus) of the Asiatic tropics. According to Hodge (1) "Quararibea is, to my knowledge, the only New World genus of the family producing an edible fruit".
The tree is indigenous to northwestern South America where its range in elevation extends from the lowlands to over 5000 feet. Popenoe (2), describing the fruit under the Latin name Matisia cordata, observed it as one of the common fruit trees of the Ecuadorian lowlands.
In its natural habitat, Quararibea is reported to be a medium-size tree with a rounded crown reaching a height of about 36 feet. The upright, cylindrical, gray-brown trunk can be devoid of branches for over half its length. Large 6 to 12 inch, deep-green above, lighter green below, cordate leaves with prominent coarse veins are born in terminal clusters on the ends of stiff branches. The cream-colored cauliflorous flowers appear in random patches among the smaller branches of the inside growth. These are one inch in diameter by four inches long including the stem.
Eight months after blooming, the 'top shaped' brownish-green sapotes mature. These large pear-size fruit are firmly attached to the branches by a short stout stem. Upon ripening, the heavy, persistent calyx contracts slightly, displaying a perimeter of lighter colored skin which it formerly covered. The thick leathery pubescent peel surrounds an orange-colored pulp containing two to five 1¾-inch-long hard seeds with attached fiber similar to that of the mango (Mangifera indica). Popenoe (2) described the fruit as having a sweet and pleasant taste. Hodge (1) speculated, "It (the South American sapote) is undoubtedly tender and would probably not thrive in sub-tropical areas like southern Florida."
Seeds of the South American sapote were introduced into South Florida in 1964. These had been obtained, at the request of the writer, through Lee Moore, from trees in the Amazon Basin at Iquitos, Peru. The resulting Florida-grown seedlings were later distributed among various members of the Rare Fruit Council International as a new introduction for further trial and observation. First fruiting occurred in 1973 on a tree grown in Miami by Bernard C. Bowker. A color photo of South American sapote fruit grown by the writer appears on the front cover of the above organization's 1976 Yearbook.
There are now several additional bearing specimens of the South American sapote in Dade County. One of these, in the yard of the writer, is 23 feet high with a 28-foot spread and a trunk diameter of 12 inches near ground level. Although Williams (3) writes of buttressed trunks, this tree is showing only a slight tendency in this direction. There are no limbs for the first eight feet, then branches appear in groups of five equidistantly spaced around the trunk in the same plane. These radiate out and ascend at varying angles of inclination from nearly horizontal to about 60 degrees. This branching pattern is repeated at four to five foot intervals with bare trunk in between. The tree has a spreading growth pattern with heavy, dense foliage dropping to within a foot or so of the ground. The leaves, up to 22 inches across, tend to thin out in winter. Their petiole is long, measuring about two-thirds the leaf's width.
In South Florida, the Quararibea cordata should be grown in full sun, and under favorable conditions, can increase in height at a rate of two feet or more per year. First fruit set for a young tree can be preceded by three or more unsuccessful annual flowerings. This bloom occurs during mid-winter with the resulting crop ripening the following November. Eight or more of the 4½-inch diameter sapotes can be clustered around a foot or less of branch, although usual fruiting patterns are more dispersed. The writer's tree, previously described, currently is carrying fifty-eight of the 'mango-melon'-flavored fruit.
The South American sapote will grow and fruit under both acid and alkaline soil conditions although it prefers a lower pH than that usually occurring in Dade County. Temporary defoliation can be caused by cold weather, and young trees should be protected from low temperatures. The tree is subject to attack by the Keys White Fly (Aleurodicus dispursus) and the Cuban May Beetle (Phyllophaga bruneri), a scarab beetle that has been known to strip it of foliage. It is possible that the Amazon Basin South American sapote is a superior strain compared to those occurring in other areas. This may account for the larger leaf size and the bigger, less fibrous fruit appearing on Florida-grown seedling trees which originated from this 1964 Amazon introduction.
DATE: May 1985
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