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TREES, PLEASE! Sharing Mark Twain’s Favorite Fruit

By Robin Y. Rivet, for Let’s Talk Plants! December 2023.

Sharing Mark Twain’s Favorite Fruit

Holiday season is upon us. Have you been a good friend during the year? Maybe you’ll be lucky and receive a surprise holiday treat from a neighbor or gardening buddy, plucked from their backyard “cherimoya” tree. These often ripen in December, and if you’re already growing one, do share your fruit with someone special. Locally, you can see this species in the sub-tropical fruit garden at the San Diego Botanical Garden in Encinitas.

To be honest, Mark Twain did not actually claim the cherimoya was his “favorite fruit.” He said, “it was the most delicious fruit known to men”, although his autobiography called it “deliciousness itself”. For a well-travelled man of his time, that’s still high praise. And I agree. Although the skin looks vaguely uninviting, cherimoya flesh combines the tempting flavors of pineapple, banana, strawberry, and peach, with the consistency of a custardy pear, typically astonishing unsuspecting tongues. I recommend Honeyhart and Fino de Jete, but every cultivar has its devotees.

Native to higher elevations of Peru and Ecuador, the Quechua language called the plant “chirimuya,” meaning “cold seeds” - referring to its tolerance for low temperatures. Thriving in San Diego, Annona cherimola, appreciates our climate’s scarcity of blistering hot weather, but also our lack of frost and humidity. Cherimoya trees also tolerate salt-spray, have plush, velvety-soft, semi-evergreen foliage, intoxicatingly fragrant summer flowers, and a broad, weeping habit - truly an ornamental species across Sunset Zones 21-24. Despite challenging pollination, these are trouble-free trees, and drought-tolerant once established. Specimens grow upright to 20’ or more, and it’s vital to maintain limb attachments at ≥60 degrees, since the ponderous fruits can weigh up to 2 lbs., and a loaded branch might break if drooping downwards.

Why is its pollination so fascinating? Whatever insect collected pollen in its native land (likely a beetle), does not reside in California, so most specimens will not produce quality fruit without a little “help.” Cherimoya flowers are hermaphroditic; initially emerging as female and are receptive to pollen for a short window. Within a few hours they transition into males and then shed pollen, but only fertilized females will become superior fruit. So, you’ll need to act like a bee for good production. (Honeybees are too large for pistil access.) Frankly, hand-pollination is fun, and since the flowers are so fruity with scent, it’s a pleasant gardening task. Why not experiment? It's easy. You start early-afternoon looking for male flowers, (which will be fully open with stamens visible). Grab a soft paintbrush and a shot glass. Brush some pollen into your cup. Repeat. Now, look on your tree for flowers that appear tightly closed. These will still be female. Brush some pollen into the tiny crevice inside the female flowers. It is possible that few females will be available until the next morning, so, if necessary, refrigerate your pollen overnight, and try again.

Nutrition-wise, cherimoya has many beneficial health benefits, with one word of caution. Annonacin. It’s contained in the seeds, skin, and leaves of the plant, and although its toxicity shows potential to kill cancer cells, consuming cherimoya pulp in moderation does not pose a threat. Just savor the aromatic flesh with a spoon - its hard seeds are easy to spit out.

Whether you grow, share, or receive this wonderful fruit, I promise its heart-shape is there for a reason.


Member Robin Rivet is an ISA Certified Arborist & UCCE Master Gardener – contact her:


If you enjoyed reading this article, consider joining (or renewing your membership with) the San Diego Horticultural Society.
SD Horticulture



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