The Barbados cherry tree in HortPark’s Kampong Daze had recently put forth a massive flush of flowers that was followed by the production of numerous fruits. The Barbados cherry is also referred to by the names, acerola and West Indian cherry. It is a native of Southern USA and Central America.
In a work by Julia F. Morton that was entitled ‘Fruits of warm climates’, it was stated that this fruit tree’s correct botanical name should be Malpighia punicifolia and not Malpighia glabra. Morton stated that latter botanical name refers to a wild relative of the Barbados cherry that bears smaller and pointed leaves, and produces smaller flowers and fruits. However, in Plant Resources of Southeast Asia (PROSEA), both names are synonymous and used to refer to the same plant.
The Barbados cherry tree is an attractive tree to grow. It adopts a bushy growth habit and can be pruned and trained to a desired shape and size – good as a hedge plant. Because of this, this tree is highly suitable for growing in home gardens. It left to grow, it can grow up to a height and spread of about 6 m. Another reason to grow it is because the tree produces highly ornamental fruits.
The leaves of the Barbados cherry tree are evergreen and elliptical in shape. When young, they come with irritating hairs which are lost when they are mature. Its flowers are small but attractive. They are produced in bunches and pink in colour with five pink, spoon-shaped, fringed petals.
Its fruits are very attractive to look at. They look almost like cherries which are borne singly or in 2′s or 3′s in the leaf axils. Like many fruits, they are green when young which take on a bright red colour when they are ripe. Before you pick and pop one into your mouth, be warned that the fruit, even when fully ripe, is rather sour to taste. I particularly did not enjoy the fruit. Inside each fruit, you can find three small, rounded and stony seeds. Each seed has 2 large and 1 small fluted wings.
Although not exactly palatable to people who likes fruits sweet, the fruit of the Barbados cherry is a rich source of vitamin C and local people who live in the region where the Barbados cherry can be naturally found growing eat its fruits when they had colds. The fruits are also consumed for the treatment of liver problems, diarrhoea, dysentery and coughs.
The Barbados cherry was grown on a commercial scale in the 1950s as a rich natural source of vitamin C but its popularity plunged when the same vitamin could be made synthetically via a cheaper process. Now the Barbados cherry is now only important in Puerto Rico where canned juice and frozen fruit are exported to the United States, where they are used to enrich fruit preserves and are marketed as baby foods.
This tree has also been introduced into other parts of the tropics and subtropics. In South-East Asia it is only sporadically grown. Besides its edible fruits and ornamental value as a garden plant, the Barbados cherry tree has other uses – its bark has been used for tanning and its wood, which is hard and heavy, can be used for small utensils.
Like many other fruit trees, the Barbados cherry does best when grown under direct sunshine. Apartment gardeners can grow a small plant in a pot that is situated in a sunny balcony, windowsill or corridor that receives direct sunshine for at least 4 hours daily. Note that this tree does not tolerate waterlogged soil. It prefers to be planted in be rich, acidic, deep and well drained soil and established plants can tolerate long periods of drought.