Strange Fruits

In Indian and Tibetan religious art, various deities are shown holding mysterious rounded fruits known as myrobalans (my-ROB-alans). You might think that if they're good enough for a deity, they must be pretty tasty.

Sorry. Yes, they were exported as far away as Europe during the Middle Ages, but only because they were considered medicinal. The flowers of one of them, emblic ( Emblica officinalis ), was a laxative, while its leaves and bark were used for the contrary purpose, to combat diarrhea.

The two main myrobalans were chebule ( Terminalia chebule ) and belleric ( T. belleric ). The former, a yellow-brown Afghani fruit--the name chebule refers to the city of Kabul--has been used in tanning. The latter has a black, astringent fruit that is still used as a dye. Dyers chummily call it "m'robs."

There is also a fruit tree known as myrobalan, which some people in this country grow in their gardens. It's a variety of plum, otherwise known as cherry plum ( Prunus cerasifera ), with fruits that are, in the true myrobalan tradition, middling sweet but bland. Mostly it's used as a rootstock for more desirable plum varieties.

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