The scoop on cherimoya, the ice cream fruit
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Chilean-born Isabel Barkman paused as she sliced into a mammoth cherimoya, often called the ice cream fruit and native to the Andes and other high-elevation locales. “I grew up among fruit trees,’ Barkman said. ‘I cannot live without them.”
Indeed, as a master gardener and member of the Orange County chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, Barkman is best known for her persimmon tree collection. But she does cherish the lone cherimoya tree in her yard -- a Chaffey variety, which is adapted to coastal conditions and bears fruit with a tart, lemony flavor. When Barkman put in her tree decades ago, it was one of the few varieties readily available.
Now, cherimoya gardeners have a wide choice, as was evident at the Cherimoya Festival 10 days ago at the UC South Coast Research & Extension Center in Irvine. Gardeners can find favorites such as El Bumpo, pictured here, a nubbly green grenade of complex flavor, the sweet perfume delivered with a creamy mouth-feel. The nickname ice cream fruit doesn’t come close to describing the custardy flesh surrounding the smooth seeds. (El Bumpo’s skin is too soft for commercial production, so you’re not likely to find it at Whole Foods or even a farmers market.)
California is the cherimoya capital of the U.S., with more varieties available here than anywhere else, in the nursery or in store produce aisles. Since the 1920s, rare fruit fans and growers from Southern California have been bringing back seeds and scions (cuttings) from Mexico and points south to propagate in backyards. Cherimoya does well here even though it originated at high elevations. (The name means “cold seed” in Quechua, a reference to its tolerance for chilly temperatures at high altitude.)
It’s easy to start plants from the penny-sized seeds, but you may not see fruit for 15 years -- if ever.
The flowers from which the fruit develop are hermaphroditic, starting off as female for the first 36 hours and then morphing into male -- by which time the pollen has lost some of its potential. In the wild, beetles do the work. “These little beetles get inside the flower and make love,” Barkman said, laughing. “They are the Motel 6 for the beetles.’ But here we don’t have the beetles, so you have to play insect yourself.
This means collecting pollen with a paintbrush from an open male flower in the evening and then applying it onto a blossom in the female stage the next morning. The female flowers open only partially, so the process can be tricky.
Barkman’s tree has been fruiting in recent years, possibly with the help of some insect. She has planted herbs around her tree to bring in more beneficial insects. One of several varieties grafted onto her tree is the Big Sister, which is self-fruiting.
Cherimoya tasters at the recent festival in Irvine, from left: Jacquelyn DeZeeuw and her son Andrew, who loves the fruit in smoothies; Stu Longin, who grows cherimoya in pots; and Josefa Rivera, holding two different varieties.
“When you start tasting the fruit, it becomes a passion,” said Stu Longin, a California Rare Fruit Growers member from West L.A. With limited space, he grows in containers but has still harvested cherimoya.
Winter is harvest time. The fruit ripen like avocado: rock hard at first, then suddenly softening. Some growers put mulch under their trees to prevent bruising when the fruit fall. Alex Silber, proprietor of Papaya Tree Nursery in Granada Hills and the guy pictured at the top of the post, has what he calls a spectacular “mother tree” with seven varieties grafted on it. As fruit develop, he secures bags around them to prevent them from dropping.
-- Jeff Spurrier
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More than 10 varieties are sampled at the Cherimoya Festival at the UC South Coast Research & Extension Center in Irvine.
Isabel Barkman displays a cross section of cherimoya.
The M&N variety of cherimoya at Papaya Tree Nursery in Granada Hills.