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Manilkara zapota (L.) P.Royen 1953
pronounced: man-il-KAR-uh zuh-POH-tuh
(Sapotaceae – the sapote family)
common name: Sapodilla
This is a long-lived, evergreen tree native to southern Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. A good example of its native occurrence is in coastal Yucatan, in the Petenes mangroves ecoregion, where it is a subdominant plant species. It is grown in huge quantities in India, Pakistan and Mexico, and was introduced to the Philippines during Spanish colonization.
Sapodilla can grow to more than 30 m high with an average trunk diameter of 1.5 m, but under cultivation it is usually 9–15 m high with a trunk DBH of less than 50 cm. It is wind-resistant, and the bark is rich in a white, gummy latex called chicle . This is widely used as the base for chewing gum.
The white flowers are inconspicuous and bell-shaped, with 3 brown hairy outer sepals and 3 inner sepals enclosing the pale green corolla and 6 stamens. They are borne on slender stalks at the leaf bases.
The fruit is a large ellipsoid berry, 4–8 cm in diameter, very much resembling a smooth-skinned potato, and usually containing 2–12 seeds, although some varieties are seedless. The brownish grey skin is thin. Inside, its flesh ranges from a pale yellow to an earthy brown colour, with a grainy texture rather like that of a very ripe pear. The seeds are black, and resemble beans, with a hook at one end that can catch in the throat if a seed is swallowed. The seeds are easily removed, however, as they are loosely held in a whorl of slots in the centre of the fruit. The fruit has a high latex content and does not ripen till picked, which should be done when the stem breaks easily. After picking it softens, in a week or so, to a firmness and appearance not unlike that of a kiwi fruit. If the fruit is eaten before it is properly ripe, the saponin it contains has astringent qualities, drying out the mouth. The ripe fruit tastes like caramel. Fruit bats are very partial to it, and it is wise to spread nets over the tree to keep them away.
The usual way of eating the fruit, preferably chilled, is to cut it in half, de-seed, and eat the flesh with a spoon – the skin, though thin, remains firm enough to act as a ‘shell’. The flesh may also be scooped out and used as an ingredient in fruit salad or fruit cups. A dessert sauce is made by peeling and seeding ripe sapodillas, pressing the flesh through a colander, adding orange juice, and topping with whipped cream. Sapodilla flesh may also be blended into an egg custard mix before baking.
In Indonesia the fruit is sometimes fried, and in Malaya it is stewed with lime juice or ginger. In the Bahamas, the ripe fruits are crushed, strained, boiled, and the juice preserved as a syrup; mashed sapodilla pulp is also added to pancake batter and bread mix before baking.
The timber from this tree has been used for centuries, certainly from Mayan days. They made the wood into carved lintels and into roof beams for temples. Some of these wooden artefacts are still with us, showing how durable the wood is. The sapwood is narrow and brownish pink, the heartwood a dark red brown. The grain is mostly straight, but sometimes interlocked. It is usually carved while still green, and then allowed to dry to iron-like hardness. The timber does shrink excessively as it dries. Nowadays it is used for railway sleepers, flooring, native carts, tool handles, shuttles, rulers, and furniture. The red heartwood is valued for archers’ bows, banisters and cabinet work, but care must be taken to avoid dust inhalation while working the timber – it is very irritating to the nostrils. Also, the tools used must be very sharp. The wood is so dense that it sinks in water.
The Sapodilla is host to the caterpillars of several Lepidoptera, including:
Photograph of fruit by Sugeesh at Malayalam Wikipedia, used temporarily until the local tree fruits.
Photograph taken in Picnic Bay 2011, Nelly Bay 2018
Page last updated 15th May 2018