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In the temperate highlands of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and northern Chile, lucuma1 (Pouteria lucuma) is common. Well known to the Incas, it is an unusual fruit with smooth, bronze-yellow skin, and somewhat resembles a persimmon, but there the similarity ends. Its bright yellow or orange flesh is usually blended into other foods.

Lucuma (pronounced luke-mah) pulp is popular in drinks, puddings, pies, cookies, and cakes. It tastes and smells like maple syrup. Added to milk or ice cream, it contributes both color and flavor. It is a frequent component of milk shakes, typically made with lucuma but without ice cream.

For all that, lucuma is little known outside its homeland—which is strange because it is rich, nutritious, and satisfying; is versatile; and possesses a distinctive flavor. It is enjoyed largely for its flavor, but in some parts of Peru and Ecuador it plays a significant part in the basic diet of the poor. Lucuma fruits can weigh 1 kg, they are very filling, and one tree can produce as many as 500 fruits during a year—enough to feed whole families. And at times when field crops are out of season or stressed by drought, lucuma, with its year-round production and deep roots, literally becomes the tree of life.

Unlike most sweet fruits, the lucuma is high in solids and is a good source of carbohydrate and calories. When the fruit falls from the tree, it is still unripe. It is stored in hay or other dry material until soft. Even fully ripened, the pulp is firm and almost pumpkinlike in texture. Low in acid, it is a good source of minerals, particularly iron, as well as of vitamins, especially carotene (provitamin A) and niacin (vitamin B3).

An unusual advantage is that the fruit, when ripe, can be dried and milled into a mealy flour. The flour can be shipped long distances, stored for years in airtight containers, and (in Peru at least) is found in markets year-round. Fresh, undried lucuma pulp can also be frozen and stored safely for long periods.

Besides feeding people, its fruits are said to make a good feed for chickens, promoting both growth and eggs with bright-yellow yolks. In addition to its fruits, the lucuma tree is valued for its dense, durable timber.

1 Also spelled lucmo. The botanical name is often also given as Pouteria obovata, or Lucuma obovata.

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