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Cecropia fruits grow on fast-growing, tall, tropical trees with very large, 30-centimeter-wide palmate leaves. The female trees produce the cylindrical fruits at the end of short stems on the flowering stalks, along with singular white flowers curled into long twists. Each flower will develop an average of four fruits which will contain up to 800 tiny, single-seeded fruits. These fruits, called achenes (like the seeds on the outside of a strawberry), form cylindrical fruit clusters 10 to 15 centimeters long. When on the tree, Cecropia fruits look like greenish-yellow fingers reaching up to the sky. As they grow and mature, they grow soft and plump up. The fruits take on a slight grayish-green color, and become pendulous. In the center of the fruits is an inedible straight white stalk that remains once the edible portion is removed. The soft, tender flesh is sweet with a somewhat gelatinous texture and a taste reminiscent of figs. The tiny seeds can either be eaten or discarded.
Cecropia fruits can be found year-round, with a peak season in the summer and fall months.
The fruits of the Cecropia tree, which is botanically known as Cecropia peltata, are sometimes called Embauba in Brazil or Ambaiba in Bolivia. They are also known as Guarumo (Yarumo), or Trumpet Tree fruits in Costa Rica. The finger-like fruits are well-known as a popular food for fruit bats, birds, and monkeys in the Caribbean as well as in Central and South America. They are found in the wild or enjoyed by those who plant the tree for personal use. Cecropia trees are an important part of what is called the “neotropical region”: the bio-geographical area extending south, east and west of central Mexico. Cecropia trees are pioneers; hardy, fast growers that set the stage for other tree species. They support the ecosystem and provide protection and food for innumerable plant, animal and insect species. They are one of the most recognizable plants in the rainforest and are often sought out as an ornamental in the tropical Americas and the Caribbean.
A good deal of research has been done regarding the nutritional value of the leaves, bark and wood of Cecropia peltata; however, that research does not specify the nutrient content of the fruit. The leaves and fruits contain flavonoids, which are phytonutrients that give them color and nutritional benefits. These benefits include anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well as cardiovascular support. Cecropia fruits are said to be nutrient-rich and have a high protein content.
Cecropia fruits are eaten raw, or dried, as a snack. The flesh from the fruits is used to make marmalade or jam. Cecropia fruit is highly perishable and can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days.
Cecropia, or Embauba trees have been used medicinally for centuries by the Amazonian and other native peoples of north and central South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. The word Embauba comes from Tupi-Guarani, an indigenous language in South America, and means “fruit of the hollowed-out tree”. Embauba (sometimes spelled Ambaiba) leaves are used extensively as an herbal medicine throughout Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and northern Argentina. They are steeped in a tea or tincture and used to treat respiratory issues, cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s, and to calm uterine contractions. The giant, palm-like leaves are rough, earning it the nickname “sandpaper plant”. The hollow stems and branches were used by the Mayans for blowguns, trumpets (hence the name “Trumpet Tree”) and for irrigation. The wood itself is only slightly heavier than balsa, so it can be used as a substitute for the ultra-light wood.
Carl Linnaeus first classified Cecropia peltata in 1759, in his book Systema Naturae. It was originally placed in the same family as the mulberry, until further study placed it in the Cecropiaceae family. There are almost 100 different species in this genus, but only two others that are closely related and the three are often mistaken for each other. C. palmata and C. obtusifolia bear similar appearances and medicinal uses but differ by geographical location. The Cecropia trees are native to Jamaica, northern South America, and Central America. Considered to be ‘pioneers’, they are the first trees to grow after disturbances like hurricanes or wildfires. They are often used in efforts of reforestation in areas after floods or human destruction. In Central and South America, Cecropia trees have a symbiotic relationship with the biting, Aztec ants. They live within the hollow branches and stems of the tree, fend off leaf-eating ant species and other would-be predators. In other regions, the leaves are popular with sloths, earning the tree a nickname associated with the slow-moving mammals: Tree of Laziness. The role of ‘pioneer tree’ is both a benefit and a hazard; in non-native regions, the trees were deemed one of the 100 world’s worst invasive species in 2007. Cecropia trees were introduced to Hawaii and a few areas in southern Florida, where they grow well in the humid heat. There, home owners often bemoan the tree as a pest. Cecropia trees can be found sporadically in Singapore, after trees were imported from Jamaica at the turn of the 20th century. Around the same time, C. peltata were introduced as shade trees in Cameroon and along the Ivory Coast in Africa. Outside of the tropics, the trees are grown by tropical plant aficionados or rare fruit growers.