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The species originated in the Andes (in Ecuador, Peru, and Chile) in South America, but is now grown throughout South and Central America (and in the U.S., in California, Florida, and Hawaii) and the Caribbean, as well is in parts of Europe (near the Mediterranean), Africa, India and other parts of Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Commercial cultivation, however, is primarily in South America, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Israel, Australia, and New Zealand, with a dozen cultivars in commercial use. Outside its native range, the plant must be hand-pollinated for best fruit production; the labor-intensive requirement for hand pollination has constrained commercial production (NAS 1989, University of California 2011).
Cherimoya is a fairly dense, fast-growing, woody, mostly evergreen (but may be briefly deciduous), low-branched, spreading tree or shrub 5–9 meters tall. Young branches and twigs have a matting of short, fine, rust colored hairs. The leaves are alternate, simple, oblong-lanceolate, 7–15 cm long and 6–10 cm broad. The flowers are produced in small clusters, each flower 2–3 cm across, with six petals, yellow-brown, often spotted purple at the base. The fruit is oval, often slightly oblate, 10–20 cm long and 7–10 cm in diameter, with a smooth or slightly tuberculated (knobby) skin, which may appear to have overlapping scales or knobby warts. When ripe, the skin is green and gives slightly to pressure, similar to the avocado. Fruits generally weigh 150–500 grams but large specimens may grow to 2.7 kilograms or more.
Cherimoya fruits, which are usually eaten fresh (see YouTube video, How to Eat Cherimoya), have creamy, white flesh with numerous hard, inedible, glossy dark brown or black seeds embedded in it, 1–2 cm long and about half as wide. Mark Twain called the cherimoya "the most delicious fruit known to men" (Twain, 1868). The fruit is fleshy and soft, sweet, with a sherbet-like texture, which gives it its secondary name, custard apple. Some characterize the flavor as a blend of banana, pineapple, papaya, peach, and strawberry. Fresh cherimoya contains about 15% sugar (about 60kcal/100g) and some vitamin C (up to 20 mg/100g), as well as moderate amounts of calcium, phosphorus, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin (NAS 1989).
Cherimoya and other members of the Annonaceae family also contain small amounts of neurotoxic alkaloids, such as annonacin, which appear to be linked to atypical Parkinsonism in Guadeloupe if consumed frequently or in large quantities (Champy et al. 2005, Caparros-Lefebvre and Elbaz 1999). The seeds are poisonous if crushed open. An extract of the bark can induce paralysis if injected.