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Page 223 Capuli Cherry Around highland villages from Venezuela to southern Peru, the capuli 1 (Prunus capuli 2 ) is one of the most common trees. Easily identifiable, it has been said to characterize the Andean region much as the coconut palm typifies tropical coasts. Yet it is probably not an Andean native; capuli (pronounced ka-poo-lee) is an Aztec word, and most botanists believe that Spaniards introduced the tree from Mexico or Central America in Colonial times. Whatever its origin, this attractive tree has become so popular that it is seen from one end of the Andes to the other, especially around Indian settlements. In fact, it is now cultivated much more in the Andes than in its probable northern homeland, and the fruit is often much larger and more flavorful. At harvest, capuli fruits are abundantly available in Andean markets. Capuli is a cousin of the commercial black and bing cherry, which it usually resembles both in appearance and taste. However, fruits are carried on short stalks and in bunches almost like grapes, and some taste like plums. They are round and glossy and are maroon, purple, or black in color. Their flesh is pale green and meaty, and most are juicy. The skin is thin, but sufficiently firm for the fruits to be handled easily without bruising. Although mostly eaten as fresh fruit, they can also be stewed, preserved, or made into jam or wine. This fruit could become popular throughout much of the world. Although it grows in the Andes at tropical latitudes, it thrives there only in cool upland areas (2,200–3,100 m at the equator; fruit set occurs between 10–22°C). 3 It is therefore a plant for subtropical or warm temperate regions. Some newly introduced specimens are growing particularly well in northern areas of New Zealand, where little or no frost occurs. Despite its promise, the fruit also has a down side. The pit is rather 1 Locally, the fruit is often just termed “cherry” (cereza or guinda). Little-used Quechua names are “murmuntu” and “ussum.” In English it is sometimes called “American cherry.” 2 The name Prunus capuli is used extensively in agricultural and horticultural publications. Research indicates that the capuli is actually a large-fruited subspecies of the North American black cherry, formally designated as Prunus serotina subsp. capuli. Information from R. McVaugh. 3 Much of the technical data in this chapter is from R. Castillo.
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Page 224 large in proportion to the size of the fruit. Also, there is usually a trace of bitterness in the skin. However, in the best varieties it is so slight as to be unobjectionable and the fruits compete well with imported cherries. It is curious that this fruit doesn't have more negative features because it has scarcely benefited from concentrated horticultural improvement and so far has been propagated primarily by seed. 4 This is not because of any inherent difficulty: both grafting and budding are easy and successful, and the plant also roots easily from softwood cuttings. 5 The tree is extremely vigorous. It sets flowers and fruits heavily in its third—or even in its second—year of growth. It eventually reaches 10 m or more in height. Apparently, it is not exacting in its soil requirements and grows well on any reasonably fertile site. It can thrive in poor ground, even clays, and seems to prefer dry sandy soils. Although resistant to damping-off, powdery mildew, and other seedling diseases, it is susceptible to the common black-knot fungus 6 and does not thrive in wet areas (areas receiving 300–1,800 mm are said to be best in Ecuador). Apart from bearing fruit, this is a useful, fast-growing timber and reforestation species (because it produces in poor soils, cost of production is also lowered). A few years after planting, its wood is suitable for tool handles, posts, firewood, and charcoal. After 6–8 years it yields an excellent reddish lumber for guitars, furniture, coffins, and other premium products. The wood is hard, is resistant to insect and fungus damage, and sells at high prices. 7 Young branches are supple and strong, like willow canes, and the prunings are often used to make baskets. Capuli seems particularly suitable for agroforestry systems. Its deep roots help prevent erosion, and it may not dry the soil. It can be interplanted with field crops such as alfalfa, corn, and potatoes. It is a good plant for wind protection and it acts like a biological barrier—the birds enjoy its fruits so much they leave nearby crops alone. 8 PROSPECTS The Andes. Horticulturists in the Andes should investigate this species soon. Because of its fine woodworking and fuel qualities, trees are disappearing from some areas, with consequent loss of valuable 4 In the late 1980s, grafted trees are just coming into use in Ecuador. Information from B. Eraso and R. Castillo. 5 Information from P. Del Tredici. 6 Information from P. Del Tredici. 7 Information from R. Castillo. 8 Information from B. Eraso.
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Page 225 ~ enlarge ~ Ambato, Ecuador. Although the capuli is known throughout Latin America, and probably originated in Mexico, it is in the Andes where the best types in size, color, and flavor are found. Great quantities appear in native markets, especially in Ecuador, where the capuli is an important food, not only of the Indians, but of all the inhabitants. After the Conquest, it was at times a mainstay of the invading Spaniards. The best capuli cherries (right) have dark maroon skins, firm texture, juicy greenish-brown flesh, and a flavor resembling that of the common cherry. (D. Endt)
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Page 226 germplasm. There are excellent possibilities for selecting better tasting, fleshier fruits. With vegetative propagation, selected horticultural varieties could become increasingly important and widely popular in many parts of Latin America where only the inferior seedling forms now grow. 9 Some trees already produce large and fleshy fruits, and it is important to select and propagate them by budding or grafting. 10 Flavor differences are particularly important. The fruits of many trees are so bitter as to be disagreeable, whereas others (often called “capuli chaucha”) are sweet, pleasant, and delicious. This type, which compares favorably with imported cherries, should be selected and propagated. (The region around Ambato, Ecuador, is said to be a good source.) As demand increases, processing facilities should become available to smooth out the price swings caused by glut then scarcity. Other Developing Areas. Although this tree is known throughout most of the Americas, the best fruits are found in the Andes. Andean capulis deserve serious attention in other Latin American countries as well. It is an excellent street tree for urban areas, adding shade, beautification, and even a little nutrition. (In downtown Quito, for example, it is not uncommon to see schoolchildren clambering for fruit in the capuli trees by the bus stops.) It also has promise outside the Americas. It can be cultivated in many regions, including some where European cherries are not successful. It may be of value in many parts of Asia Minor, northern India, and other regions with similar climate. (Strict quarantine procedures must, of course, be followed in the Old World homelands of so many Prunus species.) Industrialized Regions. Although unequal to the cultivated European-derived cherries—produced by generations of selection and vegetative propagation—the capuli fruit is of good quality and has much potential for improvement. The plant seems photoperiod insensitive and sufficiently hardy to permit successful cultivation as far north as California, Florida, and 9 Because seeds have nearly 100 percent germination, they are generally sown where the tree is to grow. Information from R. Castillo. 10A collection of almost 100 accessions has been planted at Santa Catalina, near Quito. Information from R. Castillo.
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Page 227 the Gulf states of the United States. Indeed, it has already grown and borne fruit in Massachusetts (42°N). 11 As noted, this South American cherry has recently been introduced to New Zealand and also deserves greater attention in certain parts of southern Europe, including the shores of the Mediterranean, and perhaps South Africa and Australia. Trials are already under way in Sicily, where the tree is growing well. 12 11 Where it holds its leaves into January and has survived intermittent temperatures of less than −20°C. Information from P. Del Tredici. 12 Information from A. Raimondo.
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