Blighia sapida, akee, is a medium-sized evergreen tropical tree in the Sapindaceae (soapberry family) that originated in Western Africa but now widely cultivated and naturalized in tropical areas worldwide, especially in the Central America and West Indies, where it was an important food plant after being imported to Jamaica, reportedly in 1783 by Captain Bligh (who is better known for his attempts to export breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis from Tahiti). The fleshy arils of the akee fruit are edible when ripe but poisonous when unripe or overripe. The akee is the national fruit of Jamaica, where it is considered a delicacy, and is used to prepare a famous dish with salted codfish, “akee and saltfish.”
The dioecious akee tree grows to 12 m (40 ft) tall, and has alternate, pinnately compound leaves with 6 to 10 oval to oblong leaflets, each up to 15 cm (6 in) long. The small, greenish-white flowers are unisexual, and have 5 petals and sepals, with 8 to 10 stamens. The fruit is a fleshy, leathery-skinned capsule with three segments, which ripens to yellow or magenta, and is around 7.5 cm (3 in) long. The capsule splits open when it is ripe; within each of the 3 segments there is a shiny black seed surrounded by cream-colored flesh (the aril).
The aril is edible only when perfectly ripe, but all other parts of the plant, including the seeds and the raphe (the tissue connecting the seed to the aril) contain toxic amino acids known as hypoglycins. Consumption of unripe or overly ripe fruits or any of the poisonous plant parts may lead to vomiting and convulsions, or, in severe cases, coma and death. For this reason, akee fruits are banned in the U.S., but they are still available in canned form.
Akees are high in protein, fat, and vitamins A, B1 and B2, and C. They are generally boiled in saltwater, then fried. After this preparation, they resemble scrambled eggs, and are sometimes referred to as “vegetable brains.”
(Bailey et al. 1976, Hedrick 1919, van Wyk 2005.)
- Bailey, L.H., E.Z. Bailey, and the L.H. Bailey Hortatorium. 1976. Hortus Third: A concise dictionary of plants cultivated in the United States and Canada. New York: Macmillan. p. 167.
- Hedrick, U.P., ed. 1919. Sturtevant’s Notes on Edible Plants. State of New York. Dept of Agriculture. 27th annual report, vol. 2, part II. Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Co. p. 96.
- van Wyk, B.-E. 2005. “Blighia sapida.” Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide. Portland, OR: Timber Press. p. 91.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Blighia sapida
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Blighia sapida
Public Records: 4
Specimens with Barcodes: 12
Species With Barcodes: 1
The ackee, also known as achee, ackee apple or akee (Blighia sapida) is a member of the Sapindaceae (soapberry family), as are the lychee and the longan. It is native to tropical West Africa in Cameroon, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
The scientific name honours Captain William Bligh who took the fruit from Jamaica to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England in 1793 and introduced it to science. The common name is derived from the West African Akan akye fufo.
The fruit was imported to Jamaica from West Africa (probably on a slave ship) before 1778. Since then it has become a major feature of various Caribbean cuisines, and is also cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas elsewhere around the world.
The leaves are paripinnatly compound,15–30 centimetres (5.9–11.8 in) long, with 6–10 elliptical to obovate-oblong leathery leaflets. Each leaflet is 8–12 centimetres (3.1–4.7 in) long and 5–8 centimetres (2.0–3.1 in) wide.
The fruit is pear-shaped. When it ripens, it turns from green to a bright red to yellow-orange, and splits open to reveal three large, shiny black seeds, each partly surrounded by soft, creamy or spongy, white to yellow flesh—the aril. The fruit typically weighs 100–200 grams (3.5–7.1 oz).
Cultivation and uses
Although native to West Africa, the use of ackee in food is especially prominent in Jamaican cuisine. Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica, and ackee and saltfish is the national dish. Ackee and codfish is ranked number two in the world by National Geographic survey of national dishes. Recently, ackee wine has been introduced in Jamaica and though it has resulted in a majority of curious and adventurous Jamaicans gravitating towards the newly introduced product it still has not appealed to others.
Ackee pods are allowed to ripen on the tree before picking. Prior to cooking, the ackee arils are cleaned and washed. The arils are then boiled for approximately 5 minutes and the water discarded. The dried seeds, fruit, bark, and leaves are used medicinally.
The unripened or inedible portions of the fruit contain the toxins hypoglycin A and hypoglycin B. Hypoglycin A is found in both the seeds and the arils, while hypoglycin B is found only in the seeds. Hypoglycin is converted in the body to methylenecyclopropyl acetic acid (MCPA). Hypoglycin and MCPA are both toxic. MCPA inhibits several enzymes involved in the breakdown of acyl CoA compounds. Hypoglycin binds irreversibly to coenzyme A, carnitine and carnitine acyltransferases I and II reducing their bioavailability and consequently inhibiting beta oxidation of fatty acids. Beta oxidation normally provides the body with ATP, NADH, and acetyl CoA which is used to supplement the energy produced by glycolysis. Glucose stores are consequently depleted leading to hypoglycemia. Clinically, this condition is called Jamaican vomiting sickness. Ill effects occur only when the immature fruit is consumed.
The ackee fruit is canned and is a major export product in Jamaica. In 2005, the ackee industry of Jamaica was valued at $400 million. The importing of canned ackee into the U.S. has at times been restricted due to unripe ackee arilli being included. However, it is currently allowed, provided that the amount of hypoglycin present meets the standards of the Food and Drug Administration. In 2005, the first commercial shipments of canned ackee from Haiti were approved by the United States FDA for shipment to the US market.
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- THE ACKEE FRUIT (BLIGHIA SAPIDA) AND ITS ASSOCIATED TOXIC EFFECTS, The Science Creative Quarterly
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