Apr. 4, 2020

Origins and Distribution

The Barbados cherry is native to the Lesser Antilles from St. Croix to Trinidad, also Curacao and Margarita and neighboring northern South America as far south as Brazil. It has become naturalized in Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico after cultivation, and is commonly grown in dooryards in the Bahamas and Bermuda, and to some extent in Central and South America.

The plant is thought to have been first brought to Florida from Cuba by Pliny Reasoner because it appeared in the catalog of the Royal Palm Nursery for 1887-1888. It was carried abroad rather early for it is known to have borne fruit for the first time in the Philippines in 1916. In 1917, H.M. Curran brought seeds from Curacao to the United States Department of Agriculture. (S.P.I. #44458). The plant was casually grown in southern and central Florida until after World War II when it became more commonly planted. In Puerto Rico, just prior to that war, the Federal Soil Conservation Department planted Barbados cherry trees to control erosion on terraces at the Rio Piedras Experiment Station. During the war, 312 seedlings from the trees with the largest and most agreeably-flavored fruits were distributed to families to raise in their Victory Gardens. Later, several thousand trees were provided for planting in school yards to increase the vitamin intake of children, who are naturally partial to the fruits.

An explosion of interest occurred as a result of some food analyses being conducted at the School of Medicine, University of Puerto Rico, in Rio Piedras in 1945. The emblic (Emblica officinalis L.) was found to be extremely high in ascorbic acid. This inspired one of the laboratory assistants to bring in some Barbados cherries which the local people were accustomed to eating when they had colds. These fruits were found to contain far more ascorbic acid than the emblic, and, because of their attractiveness and superior eating quality, interest quickly switched from the emblic to the Barbados cherry. Much publicity ensued, featuring the fruit under the Puerto Rican name of acerola. A plantation of 400 trees was established at Rio Piedras in 1947 and, from 1951 to 1953, 238 trees were set out at the Isabela Substation. By 1954, there were 30,000 trees in commercial groves on the island. Several plantings had been made in Florida and a 2,000-acre (833-ha) plantation in Hawaii. There was a great flurry of activity. Horticulturists were busy making selections of high-ascorbic-acid clones and improving methods of vegetative propagation, and agronomists were studying the effects of cultural practices. Smaller plantings were being developed in Jamaica, Venezuela, Guatemala, Ghana, India, the Philippines and Queensland, Australia, and even in Israel. Many so-called "natural food" outlets promoted various "vitamin C" products from the fruits-powder, tablets, capsules, juice, sirup.

At length, enthusiasm subsided when it was realized that a fruit could not become a superstar because of its ascorbic acid content alone; that ascorbic acid from a natural source could not economically compete with the much cheaper synthetic product, inasmuch as research proved that the ascorbic acid of the Barbados cherry is metabolized in a manner identical to the assimilation of crystalline ascorbic acid.

The large plantation of the Hawaiian Acerola Company (a subsidiary of Nutrilite Products Company) was abandoned for this reason, and low fruit yields; and, so it is said, the low ascorbic acid content because of the high copper levels in the soil. Puerto Rican production was directed thereafter mainly to the use of the fruit in specialty baby foods.

Frozen fruits are shipped to the United States for processing.


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