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The ilama tree reaches 7.5 m (25 feet), often branching near ground level. It has aromatic, pale-brownish-grey, furrowed bark and glossy, thin, elliptic to obovate or oblanceolate leaves, 5–15 cm (2–6 inches) long. Clasping the base of the flowering branchlets are one or two leaf-like, nearly circular, glabrous bracts, about 2.5–3.5 cm (1 to 1-3/8 inches) long. The flowers are maroon-colored, long and solitary; they open to the base, and have small, rusty, hairy sepals, narrow, blunt, minutely hairy outer petals, and stamen-like, pollen-bearing inner petals. Trees bear fruit starting at three to four years, but fruit production is typically low—many trees yield only 3–10 fruits—but exceptional trees may bear as many as 85 to 100 fruits per season.
The ilama fruit is cone-shaped, heart-shaped, or ovular. Resembling the cherimoya (A. cherimola), it is about 15 cm (6 inches) long and may weigh as much as 900 g (2 pounds). Generally, the ilama is dotted with tubercules—more-or-less pronounced, triangular spikes that jut out of the fruit—though fruits on the same tree may vary from rough to fairly smooth. The rind varies from pale green to deep pink or purple, coated with a thick mat of velvety, gray-white bloom. It is about 6 mm (1/4 inch) thick, leathery, fairly soft, and granular.
There are two types of ilama, green and pink. The green type has white, sweet flesh, while the pink type, has rosy, tart flesh, which ranges from dry to juicy. Both types have a fibrous center, but are smooth and custardy near the rind. The flesh contains 25 to 80 hard, smooth, brown, cylindrical seeds, about 2 cm long, and 1 cm wide.
Ilama fruits are eaten on the half-shell or scooped out of the rind, usually chilled when served. They are high in calcium, phosphorus, niacin and ascorbic acid. They are considered inferior to the cherimoya in flavor, but can be cultivated in lowlands where the cherimoya does not grow (NAS 1989).
The name “ilama” is derived from the Spanish for the Nahuatl (Aztecan) word ilamatzapotl, which can be translated as "old woman's sapote;" sapote refers to the soft, edible fruit of various species, probably originally Manilkara zapota (Watson 1938). The name “ilama” is also applied to a similar fruit, soncoya or cabeza de negro (A. pupurea), which is cultivated as an alternative to the cherimoya. Ilama is sometimes confused with the soursop and custard apple (A. muricata and A. reticulata).