Barbados Cherries (Acerola)
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The Barbados cherry is a small, round to oblate fruit, averaging about 1 inch in diameter. Some of the bright red to deep crimson colored fruit are said to resemble small apples. They have a thin, glossy skin that covers yellow-orange, soft, juicy pulp. The tart to sweet-tart flesh surrounds a number of seeds. Barbados cherries grow on small trees to even shrub like plants and the fruits grow in clusters of two or three. The plant boasts pink to lavender flowers that have a fringe or lace-like petals. The leaves are elongated and wavy and the plant’s branches are covered in skin irritating hairs or thorns.
Barbados cherries have a limited availability year round, with peak season during the summer months.
Barbados cherries are botanically classified as Mapighia glabra within the Malpighiaceae family. These fruits are also known as Acerola, West Indian cherry, Cereza, Cerisier, Antilles cherry, and Semeruco. The Barbados cherry grew in popularity when it was found that even just one of the ripe cherries has the potential to contain a full daily allotment of Vitamin C. Even more interesting is that a green or under-ripe fruit is said to contain twice the levels of Vitamin C as fully ripe fruit. Historically, the increase in plantings of the Acerola tree have been in response to a demand for a natural source of Vitamin C for nutritional supplements.
The Barbados cherry is most highly credited with being a natural source of high levels of vitamin C.
Ripe Barbados cherries are highly perishable and bruise very easily. Therefore, these fruits are best eaten, fresh, soon after harvest. Barbados cherries can also be pureed, juiced, or cooked down into jams, jellies, or syrups. Applications for the processed fruit include ice creams, popsicles, wine, and even baby food. During processing methods Barbados cherries lose their vibrant coloring and the resulting product will be more tan to brown in color. Due to their tart flavor Barbados cherries are often paired with sweeter tropical fruits, such as bananas, in preparation. The fresh juice can be used as an ascorbic acid substitute and can help prevent browning of fresh cut fruits such as apples and bananas. Fresh fruits should be refrigerated and used within three days, or frozen for later use, however, the fruits will fall apart when thawed.
Barbados cherry trees saw an increase in plantings after WWII when seedlings were distributed by the United States Department of Agriculture to families to plant in their Victory Gardens. Then, later in 1945 the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine released a food study of a botanical cousin of the Barbados cherry, which touted the fruit to be extremely high in ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C. This prompted one of the laboratory assistants to bring in a Barbados cherry for testing as many local people were accustomed to consuming the fruit when they had a cold. Barbados cherries were found to be an even better source of ascorbic acid – prompting the popularity of consuming and commercially producing the fruit in Puerto Rico, Florida and Hawaii. The fruit was marketed under the name Acerola. However, production eventually subsided as ascorbic acid from a natural source could not economically compete with a cheaper synthetic product. Today, the Barbados cherry is commonly used in specialty baby foods in Puerto Rico and in home gardens around the globe.
Barbados cherries are native to the Lesser Antilles islands, the neighboring Yucatan region, and South American countries, with traces as far south as Brazil. The plant has become naturalized in tropical locations including Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. Barbados cherries have also been found growing in southern Texas, Florida, coastal California and a few eastern California counties. It is believed that the plant was first brought to Florida by way of Cuba, carried by Pliny Reasoner, as the plant appeared in the catalog of the Royal Palm Nursery for 1887-1888. Eventually, in 1917, H.M. Curran delivered Barbados cherry seeds from Curacao to the United States Department of Agriculture. Barbados cherries have become more popular for use in home gardening rather than commercial production due to the difficulties found in storage and transportation of the fruit. Barbados cherries grow best in full sun conditions, are classified as a tropical to sub-tropical plant, and is drought tolerant when mature.