Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Custard Apple

Annona reticulata
Also known as the bullock's heart, bull's heart

By Scott Sheu

The name of the custard apple is confusingly applied to many fruits of the creamy-fleshed annonaceous family, including the sugar-apple, pond apple and cherimoya. However, the fruit generally acknowledged as the "true" custard apple is also known as the bullock's heart. The bullock's heart was given its name in the West Indies because of its purported resemblance to a large bull or mammal's heart. The bullock's heart is the fruit of a tree known only as the Annona reticulata and has no relation to an actual apple.

There is also a tree native to Africa known as the "wild custard apple" (Annona senegalensis).

Origin and Geographical Desription

The custard apple is indigenous to tropical America. It was traditionally said to have originated in the West Indies, though evidence of a wild variety in Guatemala and Belize also point to that South American region as a possible point of origin (Mahdeem). From an early stage, it was spread to Central America, southern Mexico, and northern parts of South America.

In the 17th century, it was brought by the Portuguese to the African continent, where it is still used as a “dooryard fruit tree” by South Africans (Morton). The tree is also grown throughout southern Asia, including Malaysia, Guam, the Philipines, and India, where it can be found growing wild (Morton). It has become a popular garden variety to grow domestically, though it has been less successfully grown in the cooler climates of the United States, except in Florida.

Botanical Description

The custard apple or bullock's heart is the fruit of the Anonna reticulata, a fast-growing, semi-deciduous tree. It typically reaches 20-25 feet in height and can take on unusual growing shapes. The green leaves are slender and pointed, typically growing to be 5-8 inches long and 1-3 inches wide. The fragrant flowers bloom in clusters and are usually light green or yellow with a dark red or purple base. The tree is not considered particularly attractive by some.

True to name, the fruit is heart-shaped. It measures 3-6.5 inches in diameter and has a thin, though skin. While growing it is green but when ripe, it is brown or yellow with a faint, reddish blush and has a netted, reticulated appearance. The thick, white flesh holds a fibrous core in the center and dark, glossy seeds that are less than ½ inch long (Morton).

Culinary Usage

The custard apple's flavor is said to be far inferior to its cousins with which it is commonly confused, the cherimoya and sugar-apple. In his Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits, Wilson Popenoe wrote that:

“The bullock's-heart, although widely grown, is a fruit of little value. Compared with the sugar-apple and the cherimoya it lacks flavor” (Popenoe).

Despite that, the custard apple is still widely eaten, though it is considered a lower-class food in India. Its flesh has a custard-like consistency with a slight granular texture similar to a pear. Tribes of Florida, including the Seminoles, have enjoyed the custard apple as a food. The fruit can be eaten plain or dried, though a touch of sugar is often added to make it fully enjoyable. It may also be strained and used in ice creams and other sweet treats. The custard apple is also often turned into a sweetened drink and sometimes serves as a “milk replacement” (Burkill).

Other Usages

The custard apple and its tree serve a variety of medicinal purposes. Various parts of the tree are considered insecticidal, including the bark and seed. The seed is highly toxic when crushed, but can be used to treat dysentery and other stomach ailments. Both it and the bark are used as astringents, specifically in Africa and Asia. Additionally, the bark is utilized to soothe tooth aches by packing it agains the gums (Morton).

In the West Indies, the leaves are crushed and used as a blue-black dye that can also be utilized for tattoo ink. The leaves have been used to treat intestinal works when taken orally and treat boils and other skin ailments when applied topically. The Seminoles used an infusion of flowers to treat kidney infections (Moerman).



Burkill, H.M. The Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens, 1985.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Mahdeem, H. "Custard Apples." Neglected Crops : 1492 from a Different Perspective. 1994. J.E. Hernándo Bermejo and J. León (eds.). Plant Production and Protection Series No. 26. FAO, Rome, Italy.

Morton, Julia. "Custard Apple." Fruits of Warm Climates. Miami: Florida Flair Books, 1987. Web.

Popenoe, Wilson. Manual Of Tropical And Subtropical Fruits. New York: MacMillan, 1920.