A colleague of mine introduced me to this interesting fruit tree. In this part of the world, it can be seen growing just about anywhere ranging from wastelands to the neglected sides of roads and expressways. Known via a range of common names such as Jamaican cherry, Panama berry, Singapore cherry and the strawberry tree, this tree is botanically known as Muntingia calabura and is a member of the Muntingiaceae family.
Native to Central and South America, Muntingia calabura is a pioneer species, often colonizing disturbed sites in tropical lowlands. As a pioneer plant, it could help condition the soil and make it habitable to other plants. However, it might also be considered as an invasive species since it might out-compete indigenous plants.
It grows as a small, evergreen tree in the tropics that can attain a height of about 12 meters. It has a dense, characteristic tiered canopy with slightly drooping branches which cast much shade below. It grows and flowers continuously on fan-like branches where the mainline branches becoming erect after leaf fall and so in turn contributing to the formation of the trunk. This tree has furry, serrated leaves that have a sharp tip each.
The flowers of Muntingia calabura are each borne singly and develop along a growing shoot. Flowers are engineered to open sequentially along the elongating branch. Flowers that are about to open and those that have been pollinated are positioned differently – flowers to be pollinated are positioned above the subtending leaf so that it is rendered more conspicuous to pollinators and segregated from the concealed fruit which hangs below. This is also probably to ensure that seed dispersers going after the fruits will less likely damage the flowers.
Flowers open just before dawn and last for only a day and bees are the main pollinators although the flowers are also self-compatible. After pollination, small round fruits that resemble cherries are produced. They start out green in colour and turns into a dull red fruit when ripe. The fruits are edible and very tasty – each berry is sweet, juicy and very addictive but contains numerous tiny, yellow seeds. Humans compete with birds and bats (if they occur) for these fruits and due to this, it can be a really difficult task trying to find a ripe fruit in a tree at any one time.
Each fruit takes about 6 to 8 weeks from anthesis to develop fully and seeds are dispersed by both bats and birds. Fresh seed germination is enhanced by passage through the digestive tract of bats. The seed is well-represented in the seed banks of forest soils and requires the high temperature and light conditions of large gaps in the forest for germination; the seedlings do not tolerate shade.
Besides yielding edible fruit, flowers of this tree are used to prepare an infusion against headaches and colds in the Philippines. The pliable bark can be used as rough cordage while the soft wood is harvested and used as firewood. Due to its spreading canopy, this tree provides much shade but it may not be wise to sit beneath it, keeping in mind that there will be birds perching above, foraging for ripe berries to eat. You can expect what will rain down on you if you are sitting below!