|Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture|
Sapodilla is the name applied in the United States to Achras Sapota, Linn., of the family Sapotaceae, generally considered one of the best indigenous fruits of the American tropics. The tree is commonly cultivated, as well as naturalized, on the Florida Keys, and the fruit (Fig. 3545) is offered in south Florida markets.
Botanically the sapodilla is closely related to the mamey sapote (Lucuma mammosa), the ti-es (L. nervosa) and the star-apple (Chrysophyllum Cainito), fruits which are well known in various parts of tropical America. The tree is evergreen, stately, with a dense rounded or conical crown sometimes attaining a height of 50 to 60 feet, horizontal or drooping branches, and stiff, glossy leaves thickly clustered at the ends of the young branchlets. The wood is hard and very durable, timbers in an excellent state of preservation having been found in the Mayan ruins of Yucatan. The bark contains a milky latex known commercially as chicle, which is secured by tapping the trunk, and is exported in considerable quantities from Mexico to the United States, where it forms the basis of chewing-gum. The leaves are borne upon slender petioles up to 1 inch long, the blades entire or emarginate, ovate-elliptic to elliptic-lanceolate in outline, rounded-cuneate at the base and commonly obtuse at the apex, 2 to 5 inches long, glabrous, of rich green color, the midrib prominent below. The small inconspicuous flowers are produced upon short finely pubescent pedicels in the leaf-axils toward the ends of the branchlets; the calyx is composed of six small ovate-acuminate hairy sepals, the corolla white, tubular or urceolate, lobulate at the top, the stamens six, opposite the lobules, with short flattened attenuate filaments and lanceolate-acuminate extrorse anthers; staminodes six, petaloid; style clavate, hairy at the tip, the ovary ten- to twelve-celled, each cell containing one ovule.
The fruit is very variable in form, commonly round, oval, globose-depressed, or conical, and 2 to 3 1/2 inches in diameter. The skin is thin, rusty brown, somewhat scurfy, giving the fruit a striking resemblance to an Irish potato. The flesh is yellowish brown, translucent, soft and melting when fully ripe, sweet and delicious, but when green containing tannin and a milky latex, so that it must not be eaten until it has become quite mellow. The seeds vary from none to ten or twelve, and are hard, black and shining, obovate, flattened, about 3/4 inch long, easily separated from the pulp.
The flavor of the sapodilla is difficult of description, likened to that of a pear by some writers, and with a peculiar character common to several sapotaceous fruits. Some of the early writers were enthusiastic in praising it, the Spanish historian, Oviedo, going so far as to call the sapodilla the best of all fruits. More recently Firminger, an Anglo-Indian horticulturist, wrote that "a more luscious, cool and agreeable fruit is not to be met with in this or perhaps any country in the world," while Descourtilz says it is "melting, and has the sweet perfumes of honey, jasmin, and lily-of-the valley." In Florida it is a general favorite, especially among residents of the keys, and in numerous other parts of tropical America it assumes considerable importance among cultivated fruits.
The tree is considered by Pittier to be indigenous in Mexico south of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Guatemala, and possibly in Salvador and northern Honduras, being especially abundant in the lowlands of Tabasco, Chiapas, and the western part of Yucatan, which are the principal centers of production of chicle gum. The common name is derived from the Nahuatl word zapotl or tzicozapotl, the latter meaning "gum zapotl" and surviving to the present day in the precise form chicozapote, by which the tree is commonly known in southern Mexico; zapotl was the name given by the Aztecs to all soft sweet fruits. In Spanish-speaking countries the sapodilla is frequently called nispero, which name properly belongs to the European medlar. In the British West Indies the name naseberry is common. In Brazil one form of the fruit is called sapoti, another sapota. The German name for the tree is Breiapfelbaum, the French sapotillier, and the Dutch mispelboom.
From its home in tropical America, the sapodilla has been carried around the globe, and though less commonly cultivated in the Orient than the papaya, it is grown in many regions, particularly in some parts of southern India, where, according to Macmillan, it thrives up to elevations of 3,000 feet, though in Ceylon it is seldom productive above 1,500 feet and succeeds best on the coast. In Ecuador its cultivation is said by Pittier to extend into the temperate belt at altitudes of more than 8,000 feet. Its culture in Florida is limited to the southern part of the state, approximately the section south of Palm Beach on the east coast and the Manatee River on the west. Mature trees have passed uninjured through temperatures of 28° F., according to Reasoner. A notable advantage of the tree for some parts of the West Indies is the fact that the branches are tough and not easily broken by hurricanes. In California it has not yet fruited, though in favored locations specimens have occasionally attained an age of several years without being injured by frost. Even in the tropics, however, the tree grows very slowly, and in California the cool winters greatly hinder its development. It seems probable that it may yet be fruited in protected foothill regions, but its culture in most parts of southern California is not practicable.
The soil best adapted to the sapodilla seems to be rich sandy loam, but it thrives almost equally well on light clay and on the shallow sandy soil, underlaid with soft limestone, which is found on the lower east coast of Florida. Even though grown under the most favorable conditions, the trees rarely come into bearing until six to eight years of age, if seedlings, and in some sections do not attain a greater ultimate height than 20 to 30 feet. They should not be set closer together than 25 to 30 feet, and require very little pruning, because of their close compact growth. As a general thing the trees bear heavily, and two crops a year are frequently produced; this, with the natural variation in season among seedling trees, results in ripe fruit being found in the markets of tropical America at nearly all times of the year.
Experiments have shown that the sapodilla can be shipped very successfully and without excessive care in packing; notwithstanding the delicate texture of the skin it keeps well, and if picked while still hard can be kept in good condition for ten days or more. Shipments have been made from the Florida Keys to New York, the fruit being placed in small baskets which hold half a dozen good-sized fruits, six of these baskets being packed in a tomato-crate. For local consumption or for shipping to short distances, the common procedure in Florida is to pull the fruits from the tree and throw them into boxes or baskets, in which they are carried to market, where the ripe ones are picked out and sold from day to day. The sapodilla is used almost exclusively as a fresh fruit, usually eaten out of hand, but is sometimes utilized in Brazil and Cuba to prepare a delicious sherbet. Little is known of its culinary possibilities. Due to its lack of acidity it is doubtful whether it will lend itself to many different uses.
The sapodilla is generally propagated by seed, but the variation among seedlings in productiveness as well as in quality, size, and shape of fruit necessitates some asexual means of propagation, if the most desirable seedling forms are to be perpetuated. Horticulturists have been as dilatory in applying vegetative propagation to the sapodilla as they have with most of the other tropical fruits, but experiments in Florida have shown that it can readily be budded, using as stocks seedlings of the same species.
Seeds, if kept dry, will retain their vitality for several years, and are easily transported through the mails to any distance. They should be planted in shallow flats of light sandy soil, covering them to the depth of 1/2 inch. In warm weather germination takes place within a month, and the young seedlings, after they have made their second leaves, can be potted off and carried along in pots for the first year or two, when they are ready to be set out in the open ground. If to be budded, they may be planted in nursery rows about 3 feet apart, 18 inches apart in the row. In south Florida, May has proved to be a favorable season for budding; in strictly tropical regions the work can probably be done at any time, provided the stock plants are in active growth. Budwood should be chosen from young branches which have begun to lose their greenish color and assume a brownish tinge, and should be carefully examined to see that the eyes are well developed. Shield-budding is the method used, the details being practically the same as with the mango; buds should be cut slightly more than an inch in length, and the wood removed if it comes out readily. After making the incision in the stock, the bud should be inserted and tied as promptly as possible, as the latex soon collects around the incision and renders it difficult to do the work properly. Waxed tape should be used for wrapping. After three or four weeks the stock may be headed back, and the wrap loosened, leaving the eye exposed so that it may start into growth.
Occasional seedlings produce fruits which are nearly or quite seedless; some produce fruits weighing more than a pound, while others do not weigh over two or three ounces; some are unusually prolific, or ripen their fruit at especially desirable times of the year. From such seedlings one should select the best for propagation, having in mind the characteristics which it is most desired to perpetuate.
The tree seems to be remarkably free from insect pests and fungous diseases, and in Florida requires very little attention. While fertilizers are not commonly employed, their judicious use will doubtless improve the size of the fruit and have a beneficial effect in those frequent instances where the tree brings to maturity so many fruits that some remain very small.
Adaptation: Sapodillas are not strictly tropical and mature trees can withstand temperatures of 26° to 28° F for several hours. Young trees are more tender and can be killed by 30° F. The sapodilla seems equally at home in humid and relatively dry environments. Although it will grow in the milder parts of southern California, whether it will fruit regularly remains to be seen. A tree in La Mesa, Calif. has borne fruit. Cool California nights seem to be a limiting factor. The slow-growing sapodilla makes a satisfactory container or greenhouse specimen.
Growth Habit: The sapodilla is an attractive upright, slow-growing, long-lived evergreen tree. Distinctly pyramidal when young, with age the tree may develops a crown that is dense and rounded or sometimes open and somewhat irregular in shape. It is strong and wind-resistant and rich in a white, gummy latex. In the tropics it can grow to 100 feet, but grafted cultivars are substantially shorter. A 40-year old tree in La Mesa, California is only about 12 feet tall.
Leaves: The leaves are highly ornamental, 3 to 4-1/2 inches long and 1 to 1-1/2 inches wide. They are medium green, glossy, alternate and spirally clustered at the tip of forked twigs.
Flowers: Sapodilla flowers are small, inconspicuous and bell-like, approximately 3/8 inch in diameter. They are borne on slender stalks in the axil of the leaves. There are several flushes of flowers throughout the year.
Fruit: The fruit is round to egg-shape, 2 - 4 inches in diameter. The skin is brown and scruffy when ripe. The flesh varies from yellow to shades of brown and sometimes reddish-brown, and may be smooth or of a granular texture. The flavor is sweet and pleasant, ranging from a pear flavor to crunchy brown sugar. Fruits can be seedless, but usually have from 3 to 12 hard, black, shiny, flattened seeds about 3/4 inch long in the center of the fruit.
Miscellaneous: Chicle, the latex obtained from the bark of the tree has been used as a chewing gum base for many years.
Location: The sapodilla prefers a sunny, warm, preferably frost free location. They are highly wind tolerant and can take salt spray.
Soil: Sapodillas are well adapted to many types of soil. It thrives in very poor soils but flourishes also in deep, loose, organic soil, as well as light clay, sand or lateritic gravel. Good drainage is essential, the tree doing poorly in low, wet locations. It is highly drought resistant and approaches the date palm in its tolerance of soil salinity.
Irrigation: The tree tolerates dry conditions remarkably well. Most mature sapodilla trees receive no watering, but irrigation in dry season will increase productivity.
Fertilization: Newly planted trees need small and frequent feedings to become established. Fertilizers that contain 6-8% nitrogen, 2-4% available phosphoric acid and 6-8% potash give satisfactory results. First year applications should be made every two to three months beginning with 1/4 pound and gradually increasing to one pound. Thereafter, two to three applications per year are sufficient, in amounts proportionate to the increasing size of the tree.
Pruning: Sapodillas require very little pruning.
Frost Protection: Although mature sapodilla trees will take several degrees of frost, it is prudent to provide them with overhead protection if possible and plant them on the south side of a wall or building. Plants can also be covered with sheeting and such when significant frost is likely.
Harvest: It is often difficult to tell when a sapodilla is ready to pick. If the skin is brown and the fruit separates from the stem easily without leaking of the latex, it is fully mature but must be kept at room temperature for few days to soften. It is best to wash off the sandy scruff before putting the fruit aside to ripen. It should be eaten when firm-soft, not mushy. Firm-ripe sapodillas may be kept for several days in good condition in the home refrigerator. At 35° F they can be kept for 6 weeks. Fully ripe fruits frozen at 32° F keep perfectly for a month. The fruit is mainly consumed fresh.
The sapodilla is most commonly propagated by seed, which remain viable for many years if kept dry. Easily germinated, they take five to eight years to bear. Since seed may not come true, vegetative propagation is desirable. Veneer grafting with seedlings as rootstock is the best method . Air layering and rooting of cuttings have not been successful.
Pests and diseases
In general the sapodilla tree remains quite healthy with little or no care. Insects and diseases usually don't cause sufficient damage to necessitate control measures, although the Wooly White Fly can sometimes be a problem. Oil sprays in winter are suggested.
The extensive cultivation in India has resulted in numerous cultivars in that country. Quite a few cultivars are under test in Florida. A few of the better known ones are listed below.
- Brown Sugar - Originated in Homestead FL. Introduced in 1948. Fruit medium small, 2 to 2-1/2 inches long, nearly round. Skin light, scruffy brown. Flesh pale brown, fragrant, juicy, very sweet and rich, texture slightly granular. Quality very good. Tree tall, bushy.
- Prolific - Originated in Homestead, FL. Introduced in 1951. Round-conical fruit, 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches long and broad. Skin scruffy, brown, becoming nearly smooth at maturity. Flesh light pinkish-tan, mildly fragrant, texture smooth, flavor sweet, quality good. Tree bears early, consistently and heavily.
- Russel - Originated in Islamorade, FL. Introduced in 1935. Large, roundish fruit, 3 to 5 inches in diameter and length. Skin scruffy brown with gray patches. Flesh pinkish-tan, shading to greenish-tan under the skin, mildly fragrant, texture somewhat granular. Flavor rich and sweet. Tree slower to bear and less productive than Prolific.
- Tikal - A new seedling selection with excellent flavor. Elliptic shape, light brown in color, smaller than Prolific. Ripens very early.