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CUSTARD APPLES

The food markets of tropical America routinely exhibit a number of large green premium fruits whose soft and delicious pulp is likened to fruit-salad from a tree. Variously known as “sops” or “custard apples,” these attractive greenish globes include soursop (guanabana), sweetsop, custard apple, sugar apple, cherimoya, and bullock’s heart. In recent decades these delicacies have been planted ever more widely and certain ones have turned into popular commercial products in locations far beyond their ancestral home, including Europe, the United States, and Australia.

What is not well known is that this famous fruit family (Annonaceae) has African members as well. These, however, are little studied and are not well understood even within their natural habitats. Now they deserve the same kind of attention as their botanical brethren across the Atlantic. One, the African custard apple, has been called “the best indigenous fruit in most parts of tropical Africa.” Another, the junglesop, produces probably the biggest fruits in the whole family—as long as a person’s forearm and as thick as a person’s thigh. A third—perhaps the strangest of all—“hangs like a bunch of sausages,” each fruit a bright scarlet link. At least two more produce small tasty fruits that make people’s mouths water at just the remembrance from a long-ago childhood. And this group includes a tangy fruit borne on a plant so strange that it barely rises above ground level.

This is a good time to investigate these unusual fruits. Their American relatives, especially the highland cherimoya, are rising in horticultural importance throughout many parts of the world. And crosses between different species are creating hybrids that appear to have their own attractive futures. Clearly, the African counterparts should now join in this march of culinary progress.

Scientifically speaking, Africa’s annonas are so neglected that their genetic variability still awaits discovery and description. Fruits of above-average in size and excellent taste exist in abundance. Gathering those should be a priority. Types with few or no seeds are known, and should also be sought. Certain plants also show other useful genetic traits. Some, for instance, grow upright while many others sprawl.

In addition, hybrids between the African species and their American relatives may well produce brightly colored, larger fruits with few (or



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