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A November fruit

November 30, 2012

The flowers of the Indian cherry (Mimusops elengi, Sapotaceae) have a graceful perfume. Now, the flowers have turned into fruits:

At present the red fruits ripen at Dokmai Garden and at parks and temples around Chiang Mai. They do attract birds which bring movement and music to your garden, but do they appeal to a gourmand?

The fruits have a dry, astringent and tasteless yellow flesh with a blackish and flattened stone so typical of Sapotaceae. However, as with bland mushrooms, one by one they seem quite disappointing, but mixing many species together may create a lovely new concert of flavours and textures. Thereby Indian cherry not only provides an evergreen shade, fragrant blooms and ornamental bird food, but may also serve as an ingredient in a jungle cocktail.

Being an Ayurvedic ingredient the fruit has been attributed medicinal properties, but that field is such a jungle of more or less reliable studies I let the reader find out for himself.

Saplings can be hard to tell apart. The leaf of Indian cherry (centre) may look identical with Benjamin fig (Ficus benjamina, Moraceae, left) or eaglewood (Aquilaria crassna, Thymelaeaceae, right).

Although they belong to three different plant families, evolution has resulted in similar evergreen leaves (glabrous, v-shaped and with tapering ends) adapted to escape water accumulation during heavy rainstorms, which may rip limbs or overturn the tree due to excess weight.

The benjamin fig has a rich white latex, the Indian cherry has a modest unclear and more watery latex and eaglewood almost no latex, although a clear sap might be seen. Biting the leaves (chemical analysis) is sometimes a good way of telling plants apart, but the jungle rule of thumb is never to bite an unknown leaf with a white latex, as they may belong to terribly toxic species of the rubber tree family (Euphorbiaceae) or frangipani family (Apocynaceae). Indian cherry leaves are acidic and astringent, eaglewood leaves are bitter and the leaves of the benjamin fig are tasteless and papery.

The slow-growing Indian cherry should be grown in full sun and allowed to follow the monsoon seasons although watered when thirsty. It is frequently attacked by Dendrophthoe parasites, possibly since birds like the fruits of both host and parasite. Being slow-growing implies a hard wood, and indeed it is magnificent but rare.

Etymology: The scientific name Mimusops elengi was coined by the Swedish gentleman Linnaeus in 1753. Greek ‘mimo’ and ‘-opsis’ simply means ‘resembling a monkey’, referring to the flowers’ resemblance with some monkey faces. ‘Elengi’ is the Malayalam word for this tree (spoken in Kerala, India). I think ‘elengi’ should be adopted by the English language too, since calling every plant with red small fruits ‘cherry’ will hide the actual wealth of life on Earth.

Read more: efloraofindia

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 2, 2012 10:21 AM

    พิกุล

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