Orchard Trees of Rancho Los Cerritos: Cherimoya

By: Marie Barnidge-McIntyre

Marie Barnidge-McIntyre is the staff horticulturist for Rancho Los Cerritos in Long Beach, California, and did the majority of the…

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Flowers of cherimoya (Annona cherimola). Author’s photographs

Flowers of cherimoya (Annona cherimola). Author’s photographs

Cherimoya (Annona cherimola) is a subtropical fruit, found primarily in the mountain valleys and plateaus of Ecuador and Peru, where it benefits from a hint of chill provided by the higher elevations. The name cherimoya is derived from a Quechua word (the common language of the Andes): chirimuya means “cold seeds,” alluding to the cooler elevation where the trees thrive.

Andean cultures used the fruit as food and medicine, as well as featuring it in their art. Sculptural pieces dating back to 1000 BC from the Cupisnique culture have been found intact in archeological excavations. The later Moche culture practiced agriculture as well as art, and they too found the intriguing fruit worthy of reproduction.

The sweet fruit was popular and spread south from Ecuador and as far north as Mexico, naturalizing in elevations between 3,000 to 6,000 feet. The fruit was introduced to Spain in 1757, and it became established in southern Spain, Italy, and Africa along with sundry islands along the way. Seeds were sent to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), where they naturalized in drier parts of the islands. In the 1860s, Samuel Clemens, writing for the San Francisco Union as Mark Twain, went to the islands and wrote about his travels. Upon first encountering cherimoya, he described it as, “. . . a rare and curious luxury . . . which is deliciousness itself.”

Documentation of the first cherimoya in California is sketchy. Nurseryman Joseph Sexton received seeds in 1870 from Judge Albert Packard, a lawyer and orchardist from Rhode Island who immigrated to Santa Barbara in 1845 via Mazatlan. Packard’s seeds allowed Sexton to become the primary supplier of the trees, although other nurseryman soon followed. Seeds from Mexico were also planted in Carpenteria in 1871. As long as cherimoyas are protected from the sea’s direct influence, coastal areas of southern California seem to suit them best.

Cherimoya fruit

Cherimoya fruit

Cherimoya’s attractive dark green leaves range between four and eight inches long and are ovate with deep venation; the undersides are a velvety sage green. The tree goes briefly dormant in spring prior to flowering.

The growth habit of the tree is harder to describe. Standing only twenty to thirty feet tall, it tends to sprawl; the long branches drape back to the ground, successfully covering a surprising amount of space. Pruning is necessary if one expects it to look like a standard tree. The branching structure suits the tree to espaliering.

Cherimoya’s flower is about 1.5 inches long and surprisingly fragrant. Three long fleshy, lightly fuzzy, greenish petals enclose three smaller, scale-like petals. Both male and female parts occur in each flower, but mature at different times to protect the flower from self-pollination. First is the female stage, where the flower’s sticky stigmas will be briefly receptive to pollen from another flower; receptivity declines quickly in arid mountain air. The male stage follows a day or so later, when pollen is released, to be quickly distributed far and wide to other flowers.

This is not a simple fruit to cultivate. The cherimoya’s natural pollinator, a tiny beetle, does not live in California, so growers must hand pollinate if they want a crop. Using soft artists’ brushes, they collect the pollen in the late afternoon and immediately place it on receptive female-stage flowers; if necessary, the pollen can be kept refrigerated overnight for use the next day. In large-scale production orchards, they mix the pollen with a carrier and apply it with an aspirator. (This helps to explain the cost of cherimoyas.)

Humid conditions, as found in coastal California, extend a female flower’s period of receptivity. The weather condition affectionately known in Southern California as “June Gloom,” when the marine layer keeps summer mornings cool and foggy, does the trick here in Long Beach, allowing a longer period in which self-pollination will be successful.

The results of pollination are a conical to heart-shaped compound fruit, four to eight inches long, which can weigh anywhere from five ounces to six pounds. The skin varies with the variety, with either fingerprint sized depressions or rounded protuberances, giving the green fruit the appearance of an artichoke whose leaves have been fused together. When ripe, the skin is pale green with a hint of yellow. Easy to break open, the soft, custard-like flesh is white and highly fragrant; imbedded in the flesh will be glossy brown black seeds resembling beans. An oddly shaped fruit means that the pollination was inconsistent and only part of the flower got pollinated. Cherimoyas are best picked firm, clipped from the tree, and allowed to ripen at room temperature. A fruit will give slightly to the touch when it is ripe. The leaves, stems, and seeds are poisonous.

Despite the precise pollination requirements, both hobbyists and professionals pursued the development of new cultivars. Ralph Cornell had several varieties to choose from when he selected three cherimoyas for Rancho Los Cerritos’s primary orchard in 1931.

Developed by AF Booth of Hollywood, California, ‘Booth’ was introduced by John Armstrong through his nursery in 1921. Armstrong’s catalog proclaims that each fruit can weigh up to three pounds and is partial to self-pollinating in coastal areas. The fruit has a papaya flavor and is considered a good commercial selection.

Cherimoya fruit cut open to reveal the custard-like flesh and large seeds

Cherimoya fruit cut open to reveal the custard-like flesh and large seeds

The first fruit of the Rancho’s re-planted ‘Booth’ was a large, beautiful oval that weighed possibly two pounds and was self-pollinated. Fruits that have followed tend to be more heart shaped and are much smaller; they have the characteristic fingerprint impressions with small tubercles.

‘Whaley’ was developed in Hollywood a few years later and was also introduced through Armstrong’s, in 1927. Armstrong had high hopes for this cherimoya, touting it as, “. . . good for commercial production” and saying it was similar to ‘Booth’, with good flavor and quality. It was not to be, however, and the cultivar was no longer commercially available when we needed to re-plant the orchard.

‘Whaley’ was, however, included among trees at the South Coast Growing Grounds, an under-funded university collection of fruit trees. I obtained scion wood for grafting and was able to reintroduce it to the Rancho. The fruit tends to be smaller than ‘Booth’ with more obvious protuberances. Not as willing to self-pollinate, the crop is usually smaller.

Cornell labeled a third cherimoya “budded,” and there is a surviving tree in the orchard, but we have no idea what cultivar it is. It has a double trunk, both of which are modest in size. I suspect the original tree met with an accident and what we actually have is the rootstock. It does self-pollinate, but the fruits are typically quite small.

Cherimoya’s sweet fruits have a delightful flavor. They are low in fat and sodium, high in fiber and iron, and cholesterol free! If you haven’t the space or the time for your own tree, check your local market from winter through spring and add this exotic dessert to your table.