Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


(Annona cherimola
Also known as custard apple, chirimoya )

by Scott Sheu

"Deliciousness itself," was Mark Twain’s characterization of this luscious fruit after sampling its flesh. The meltingly soft texture and fragrant flavor of the fruit has caused it be called the custard apple at times, although it is not to be confused with the actual custard apple. It is also referred to as the “lost fruit of the Incas” or the “pearl of the Andes” and was often depicted on prehistoric ceramics by prehistoric cultures in Peru (Oxford).

Origins and Distribution

The cherimoya is native to the slopes and valleys of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador and Peru. The cherimoya could already be found in southern Mexico, Central American, and further down in South America by the time the Spanish conquistadors came in the sixteenth century.

From the eighteenth century onwards, the cherimoya was disseminated throughout the world. The cherimoya is infamous for being a demanding crop; it requires much attention and prefers a mild, subtropical climate, preferably on mountain slopes that are close to the ocean. In 1871, California became the first and only place in the United States that produces the cherimoya.

The cherimoya is an important commercial product in Chile, where it is considered the national fruit by some. Though the tree can be found in various subtropical locales, the only places that produce the fruit on a significant commercial scale are Chile, California, and Spain though it is popular as a garden fruit throughout the northern countries of South America (Van Damme and Scheldeman). Because the fruit splits open and bruises extremely easily, the cherimoya was rather difficult to find until recently.

Botanical Description

The cherimoya plant is a smaller, dense tree that is evergreen or semi-deciduous. Its branches are spreading and hold dark green, ovular leaves that are a velvety texture on the underside. The leaves range from 2-8 inches long, are typically 4 inches wide, and have prominent veins. The tree produces fragrant, brown and pink-colored flowers that have six petals and are hermaphroditic: they exist as female flowers for 36 hours and then open into male blossoms (CRFG).

The fruit of the cherimoya is heart-shaped or conical, and usually measures 10-20 cm long and 7-10 cm wide. The skin is pale green and thin, and is slightly raised so that it resembles scales, causing its appearance to be compared to the globe artichoke (Oxford). The cherimoya’s flesh is creamy white, custard-like soft, moderately juicy, and has a subtle fragrance. It is described by most as tasting like a cross between a pineapple, banana, strawberry, and papaya. The flesh contains many hard, black seeds that should not be consumed because of their toxicity.

Culinary Usage The cherimoya fruit is a prized dessert fruit and regularly sells for extremely high prices outside of plantation areas. Its tantalizing flesh is soft enough to resemble custard or ice cream and it is often frozen to encourage the resemblance. In fact, it is often used as an ice cream flavor in Peru and is a popular filling in Chile as an ice-cream wafer and cookie filling (NRC).

It is most commonly eaten by simply scooping the raw flesh out of the fruit or peeling it. The cherimoya can also be transformed into a drink; Colombians mix the juice with water and a slice of lemon for beverages (Morton).

Other Usages

The cherimoya fruit skin and its crushed seeds are toxic; ingestion of either is discouraged except by those well familiar with their medicinal qualities. The seeds have been used for insecticides while a dilution of the skin can induce paralysis.

The dried flowers are used as flavoring in snuff in Jamaica while rural Mexicans sometimes use a dilution of the seeds to induce vomiting or defecation (Morton). The pulverized seeds are also used to kill lice and treat parasitic skin problems. The skin can also be brewed into a tea for treatment of pneumonia.




"Cherimoya." California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG). Web. Morton, Julia. "Cherimoya." Fruits of Warm Climates. Miami: Florida Flair Books, 1987. Web. Popenoe, Wilson. Manual Of Tropical And Subtropical Fruits. New York: MacMillan, 1920. Print. United States. National Research Council (NRC). Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation. Lost crops of the Incas : little-known plants of the Andes with promise for worldwide cultivation. Washington D.C.: National Academy, 1989. Print. Van Damme, Patrick, and Xavier Scheldeman. "Promoting cultivation of cherimoya in Latin America." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 50 (1999). Web.