By ROBIN ROBINSON Key West Garden Club
Honeybees and beetles fertilize the clustered white flowers of the sugar apple (Annona squamosa.) However, unlike most Florida flowers, they are prudish to a fault, keeping their blossoms tightly closed while emitting a come-hither scent. The flower is composed of three green fleshy petals. They are almost invisible amongst the small leaves. They are definitely hermaphrodites as the female flowers are fertile in the morning and then magically convert to male flowers that spread their fleshy petals open in the late afternoon and evening.
Hoping to increase her yield of sugar apples, Teresa Menendezin, in the 1300 block of White Street, is a prolific inseminator of their blossoms. Honing her craft over two years of practice has brought her to the zenith of the somewhat rare profession of flower copulater.
She begins her procreating process in the early evening climbing high on a ladder to carefully collect the pollen from the spread-eagled male flowers in a small dish. First thing in the morning, she takes a natural hair make-up brush, brushes up some pollen from the dish and inserts it into the now more closed female. She marks each flower she has artificially inseminated with a red ribbon and snaps the tip of a petal off.
"I'm not always successful," she said. "But since we don't have the bees we used to have, I'm the next best thing. The pollen only lasts a short time before it turns black and is no good any more."
"Sometimes the boys don't let their pollen go. If I don't get a fruit I chalk it up to a miscarriage," Teresa said.
The extensive worldwide cultivation of the sugar apple makes it difficult to determine its place of origin, but most think it is Jamaica. It was included in Jesuit Missionary Michal Boym's book Flora Sinesis in 1655, the first book about the flora of China. But it was grown in Asia before 1590. Explorers from Spain and Portugal brought it to the East. Sweet stuff travels quickly. It is grown all over the world in climates where there is no frost. In some places it is considered invasive.
Sugar apple is a small tree about 25-feet tall with two to three-inch leaves, opposite, simple and lanceolate. They have strong yellow veins and curl slightly in a back bend. When crushed they are fragrant. Around the world the leaves have been used as medicine. They are believed to be good to alleviate rheumatic pain, to dress wounds and a host of other tonics, cold remedies and digestive concoctions.
Sugar apple trees are fruitful, sometimes producing more than 50 apples in a season. They are fast growing and begin producing fruit two or three years after planting. Fertilizing with 3 percent N, 10 percent P and 10 percent K, will increase fruit size.
Sugar apples enjoy high humidity and tolerate drought. In severe drought the tree sheds its leaves but they return when the rains come. Pruning should not be done in the spring when the sap flows as it can cause the tree to die. Bats and rats like the fruit.
The fruit is splendid and humans like it, too. It looks like a green scaly softball. When the fruit is cut open white segments of the squishy pulp contain a large black seed. Having described the fruit in a previous article (Citizen, Soursop-July 1, 2012) I will be brief. The seeds are acrid and poisonous although the kernels are made into oil, soap and perfume.
This sweet fruit is never cooked but it is blended into ice cream and eaten with condensed milk. We need to grow more of these.
"I didn't like the fruit when I was young," said Teresa, " but now I love it!"
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.