White sapote trees may have been trendy 50 years ago, but these days they are empty-lot plants, the kind of urban flora most often seen sprouting from scattered seed in some neglected patch of Southern California.
It's a wonder the tree ever fell out of favor when the taste of fruit from white sapote cultivars can be exquisite: like a creamy custard, with hints of peach, pear, lemon, banana, caramel and vanilla. It's wonderful raw, scooped out from the rind with a spoon, and excellent in drinks. It also has a slight soporific effect and was used by the Aztecs as a sleep aid.
Because the apple-sized fruit is thin-skinned, ripens quickly and bruises easily, it's relegated to farmers markets. Fans adore it, some rating it higher than cherimoya, the so-called "ice cream tree."
The name sapote means “sweet soft fruit” in the language of the Aztecs. It applies to a host of such fruit that are unrelated botanically. For example, the black sapote, which I'll cover in a future post, has the texture and taste of chocolate pudding and is related to the persimmon, whereas the white sapote is a member of the citrus family.
Franciscan monks who brought white sapote (Casimiroa edulis) here from central Mexico 200 years ago found our climate to be ideal. There are two main types: green-skinned with white flesh and golden-skinned with yellow flesh. The latter is smaller and has a shorter shelf life, but some people say it tastes better. Both types can be temperamental and do better with dry inland heat over coastal humidity.
White sapote trees produce fruit relatively quickly -- within two years of planting a grafted seedling.
Sapote researcher Bob Chambers, 89, has spent 35 years growing assorted sapote varieties on 3 acres near Fallbrook, in northern San Diego County. He is convinced that the plant has large-scale potential as a fruit crop or as a source of sugar. For decades he has made cuttings of trees available to growers worldwide. Some of the best known cultivars such as Suebelle, Chestnut and Lemon Gold come from San Diego County growers. McDill, another favorite, comes from Orange County.
Chambers sees lots of variations, which explains why the recommendation is to grow white sapote from seedlings, not from seeds. "It's like a pet," he said. "You plant seeds from a particular tree and you will get all kinds of trees out of it -- some bushy, some tall."
Some cultivars can reach 50 feet tall. Suebelle, found at large nurseries and garden centers such as Armstrong, can be kept low and even planted in a container. Mature white sapotes can produce buckets of ripe fruit, all at once, so pick your site accordingly. Fallen fruit will attract birds and rats.