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Malpighia emarginata, commonly referred to by the synonym M. punicifolia in older botanical literature, is known as acerola and Barbados-cherry. It is an evergreen broadleaf shrub or small tree native to the West Indies, Central America, and northern South America. The edible fruits are very high in vitamin C. Several cultivars have been developed, including Florida Sweet and Manoa Sweet (in Florida and Hawaii, respectively), and Fairchild, which is used for bonsai or hanging baskets.

This species is sometimes confused with M. glabra (which is native to Texas in the U.S., and to the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America), and to a cultivated hybrid of M. glabra with M. emarginata, all of which are referred to by the same common names. Much of what was previously referred to as M. glabra in botanical literature prior to 1990 actually belongs to this species.

M. emarginata grows to 2.75 m (8 feet) tall. Branches and leaves have minute stinging hairs when young (which can cause skin irritations). Leaves are opposite, elliptic to oblong, and entire (smooth-margined), 2–7.5 cm (1–3 inches) long, with short petioles (leaf stalks). The bisexual (perfect) pink or lavender flowers occur in small axillary clusters, and are generally about 1 cm (1/2 inch) in diameter. Flowers have 5 sepals (with glands) and 5 petals that are quite narrow at the bases (spoon-shaped), with fringed margins, which are held above the 10 stamens clustered in the flower’s center.

The fruits, which are berry-like but are technically drupes (fleshy fruits surrounding hard pits or stones), are small and round, about the size of a small cherry. Fruits are red when ripe and generally contain 3 seeds, which are generally angled and winged. Seedless fruits may develop if pollination has been inadequate (flowers require insect pollination).

Fruits are thin-skinned with a juicy, orange-colored pulp that has a tart, acidic flavor. Because they deteriorate quickly once picked, and spoil within 3–4 days, they are usually eaten fresh or immediately prepared into jams or preserves, purees (used in some specialty baby foods), juices and wines, or occasionally frozen. Traditional medicinal uses of the fruits include treating liver ailments and diarrhea, as well as coughs, colds, and sore throats. Overconsumption of the seedy fruits has been reported to lead to intestinal blockages. In recent years, extracts from the fruits have been added to various skin-care products due to their reputed anti-aging properties.

During the 1940s and 1950s, nutritional analysis that showed the fruit’s high vitamin C (ascorbic acid) content spurred development of cultivars and interest in commercial cultivation in Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico and elsewhere. Health food enterprises developed numerous nutritional supplements under the name “acerola.” Inexpensive methods for synthesizing ascorbic acid commercialized in the 1950s and ‘60s led to abandonment of thousands of hectares of plantations and slowed interest in cultivation. However, acerola is still commonly grown in yards in the Caribbean and Central and South America, and cultivation increased in Brazil in the 1990s.

(Bailey 1976, 1996, Everett 1981, Facciola 1990, Morton 1987, Taylor 2005)


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© Jacqueline Courteau

Supplier: Jacqueline Courteau

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