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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.)


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