Phyllanthus acidus

Otaheite gooseberry


Phyllanthus acidus

(L.) Skeels 1909

pronounced: fill-AN-thuss ASS-id-uss

(Phyllanthaceae — the phyllanthus family)

synonym — Phyllanthus distichus

(L.) Müll. Arg. 1866

pronounced: fill-AN-thuss DISS-tik-uss

common names: Otaheite gooseberry, Malay gooseberry, Tahitian gooseberry, star gooseberry

Phyllanthus is derived from the Greek φυλλον (phyllon), leaf, and ανθος (anthos), a flower; the plants in this genus appear to flower from a leaf-like stem; acidus is Latin for sour, acidic; in the synonym, distichus is from the Greek διστιχος (distichos), of two rows. It is not a gooseberry, despite its impressive array of common names. The similarity is in the acidity of its fruit.

The species is believed to have originated in Madagascar and to have been carried in prehistoric times to the East Indies. It is commonly cultivated in Indonesia, South Vietnam, Laos, and northern Malaya, and in India, where it is usually grown in home gardens. It is also found on a number of Pacific Islands, where the fruit is much favoured by children. It was introduced into Jamaica by William Bligh in 1793, and has been casually spread through the Caribbean Islands and parts of Central and South America.

The tree photographed is planted on the banks of the tidal creek at the southern end of Picnic Bay.

This is a curious shrub or small tree growing 2 – 9 m in height, with a spreading dense bushy crown of fairly thick and rough main branches. At the tips of these branches are clusters of deciduous greenish or pinkish branchlets 15 – 30 cm long, bearing alternate short-petioled ovate or ovate-lanceolate pointed leaves 2 – 7.5 cm long, in the one plane (distichous). These are thin, green and smooth on the upper surface, blue-green with a bloom on the underside; altogether they give the impression of pinnate leaves. There are two tiny pointed stipules at the base of each leaf.
Small 4-parted rosy flowers, male, female and some hermaphrodite, are borne together in little clusters arranged in panicles up to about 12 cm long, hanging directly from leafless lengths of the main branches and the upper trunk.

The fruits develop so densely that they form spectacular masses. Each fruit is oblate, with 6 – 8 ribs, and 1 – 2.5 cm in diameter. They are pale yellow to nearly white when they are fully ripe; the flesh is crisp and juicy, and highly acidic. Tightly embedded in the centre of the fruit is a hard ribbed stone containing 4 – 6 seeds. The fruits do not ripen further once they are taken from the tree.

To use the fruits, the flesh may be sliced from the stones, or the fruits may be cooked and then pressed through a sieve to separate the stones. The sliced raw flesh can be covered in sugar and allowed to stand in the refrigerator for 24 hours to reduce the acidity: the flesh and the juice can then be used as a sauce. If it is left longer, the flesh shrivels, and the juice can be strained off to form a clear pale yellow syrup.

Some local uses of the fruit are:

      • Indonesia: the tart flesh is added to many foods as a flavouring;
      • the Philippines: the juice is used in cold drinks; it is also used to make vinegar;
      • the Bahamas: the whole fruits are soaked overnight in salty water, rinsed, boiled (sometimes twice), the water discarded, the fruits boiled again with an equal amount of sugar until thick, and bottled without removing the seeds.
      • Malaya: the ripe or unripe fruit is cooked and served as a relish, or made into a thick syrup.

Fully ripe fruits do not really require much treatment. If cooked long enough with plenty of sugar, the fruit and juice turn ruby-red and form a jelly. The fruit is often combined with other fruits as a setting agent in making jam and chutney. Sometimes the fruits are candied, or pickled in salt.

In India and Indonesia, the young leaves of the plant are cooked as greens.
There are several medicinal uses. In India, the fruits are used as a liver tonic, the syrup as a stomachic, and the seeds as a cathartic. The leaves, with pepper added, are used as a poultice to treat sciatica, lumbago and rheumatism. A decoction of the leaves is used as a sudorific. The latex from various parts of the tree is emetic and purgative.

The timber is light brown in colour, fine-grained and attractive, and, if properly seasoned, is strong and durable. It is quite scarce, as trees are seldom cut down.

The tree is generally grown from seed, but is also propagated by budding, greenwood cuttings or air-layering. Trees will generally crop after about 4 years. In some places, two crops per year are produced.

Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2011-2013
Page last updated 12th March 2019