Orchard Trees of Rancho Los Cerritos: Sapotes

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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Palmately compund leaves of sapote (Casimiroa edulis). Author’s photographs

Palmately compund leaves of sapote (Casimiroa edulis). Author’s photographs

Native to Central Mexico, sapote (Casimiroa) was named for Spanish botanist Casimiro Gomez de Ortega (1741- 1818), who directed the formation of the Royal Botanic Garden of Madrid and was the first professor there. This was the garden where Spanish explorers sent the wealth of plants discovered on their travels in the New World. The genus Casimiroa comprises a half-dozen species, the majority of which remained local. The most popular and well-traveled species, C. edulis, was so called because the flesh of the fruit was delightfully edible. Known as white sapote or, simply, sapote, it was planted in countries enjoying a mediterranean climate, but did less well in tropical climates. The common name in Spanish is zapote blanco, derived from the Nahuatl word tzapotl, used to describe many soft and sweet fruits. Zapote became sapota in Latin and sapote in English. Ironically, the family Sapotaceae is full of plants bearing soft, sweet fruits, but Casimiroa is not a member. Rather, it is classified in the citrus family (Rutaceae).

Franciscan missionaries introduced sapote to California in 1810; there was at least one planted at Mission Santa Barbara around 1820. The fruit was well thought of in Los Angeles by the 1850s, and nurseries, such as CA Reed’s Tropical Nursery in Santa Barbara, were offering it for sale soon after.

Many tropical and subtropical fruits have soft flesh, but sapote fruit is exceptionally soft, which makes harvesting, storing, and shipping a challenge, if not an outright barrier, to commercial production. So sapote has been relegated to specialty growers and enthusiasts of its rich fruit. The flesh is the consistency of custard, with a skin that is easily punctured; if bruised, the flesh turns bitter, ruining the fruit. The best flavor develops when the fruit is tree ripened; the stem naturally releases the fruit when ripe, whence it falls from the tree, often with a splat. If the fruit is twisted off from the stem, a bruise develops at the separation point. The best harvest technique is to clip the stem from the tree when the fruit is almost ripe. The fruit can then be stored on a counter or in a refrigerator until the stem falls off, at which point it is fully ripe. The volume of fruit produced generally exceeds the greediest of appetites. If harvesting is delayed, the ground beneath the tree will soon be decorated with splattered fruit.

Fruit carefully harvested is eaten with a spoon and makes a rich desert; it can also be included in fruit salads or pureed and added to ice cream or blended drinks. The native people also used sapote trees medicinally; seeds and leaves were used as a sleep aid, although their effectiveness is contested by medical practitioners today. The more Casimiroa is studied, the more possibilities emerge: today researchers are looking at its isolated alkaloids and flavonoids for their ability to inhibit mutating cells, in the hope of combating cancer.

Flowers of sapote (Casimiroa edulis)

Flowers of sapote (Casimiroa edulis)

‘Wilson’ Sapote

Landscape architect Ralph Cornell planted two sapote trees in the Bixby’s primary orchard at Rancho Los Cerritos. ‘Wilson’ was introduced in 1927 by WC Wilson of Monrovia, and was the only sapote offered for sale by Armstrong’s nursery in 1930. As Armstrong’s catalog described it, “The fruit resembles a good-sized green apple, slightly flattened with flavor similar to peach. The tree does well in coastal areas where it develops a spreading habit.” The California Rare Fruit Growers, years later, described it as “. . . a productive tree with flattened fruit of good flavor but a poor keeper, and still found in collections.” Others said the flesh is of high quality and excellent flavor. The fruit ripens in fall and winter. The tree bears heavily and had been widely planted in California.

Imagine my surprise when I could not find anyone selling the tree or even growing the tree. Eventually, two sources of ‘Wilson’ appeared, including one in New Zealand. An orchardist near Watsonville, California had obtained six ‘Wilson’ sapotes from a Ventura grower; it had been his favorite sapote. The freeze of 1990 killed several of his trees. By 2000, the orchard was no longer in operation and had been abandoned. Only one tree marked ‘Wilson’ was still alive in the remnant orchard; much of its bark had been scraped away by marauding snails, and undamaged scion wood was minimal. A few cuttings were obtained by a passionate member of the California Rare Fruit Growers and sent directly to a nursery that grafted them for replanting in the Rancho’s historic orchard.

Ripening fruits of ‘Wilson’ sapote (Casimiroa edulis ‘Wilson’)

Ripening fruits of ‘Wilson’ sapote (Casimiroa edulis ‘Wilson’)

‘Suebelle’ Sapote

The second sapote on Cornell’s plan had been marked merely as “budded,” indicating that it was not a seedling, but a grafted selection not yet introduced as a named cultivar. I looked for cultivars already associated with Cornell, but those he had grafted to earn his way to Harvard had already been replaced with newer and more popular cultivars. Next, I looked at what had been introduced around 1931, when Cornell designed and planted the Bixby estate, and found ‘Suebelle’ sapote, introduced in 1931 by Susan Hubble of Encinitas, California. Having it locally available in Southern California, both in 1931 and in 2000, made it a logical choice for the second tree in the orchard.

‘Suebelle’ tends to bear year-round, producing sweet, medium to small yellow fruits. This pattern is more practical for homeowners, providing a steady supply of fruit over a longer period of time rather than inundating them with bushels of perishable fruit all at once.

Both trees have become established in the historic orchard and have produced modest crops of fruit; the flavor of ‘Suebelle’ has proven the more popular. Competition for the fruit is fierce, however, as fox-tailed squirrels seem to enjoy stripping the tree of fruit, ripe or not, casting away the bitter green unripe fruit, and leaving nothing but the seeds from the riper fruit.