Latin Name and family:
Surinam Cherry’s latin name is Eugenia Uniflora. It is in the family Myrtaceae and is native to Surinam, Guyana, French Guiana, southern Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.
There are several other names for it. In Hawaii, I’ve found it is usually called Surinam Cherry or Pitanga. Other english nicknames for Eugenia Uniflora are Cayenne cherry, Florida cherry, and pumpkin cherry. Sometimes people also call it Brazil cherry. This causes some confusion between Eugenia Uniflora (surinam cherry) and Eugenia brasiliensis (which is nicknamed Brazilian Cherry or grumichama see picture below).
These small fruits are “ribbed” and have the shape of miniature pumpkins. They are around 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches (2-4 cm) wide. As it develops, the fruit turns from green to orange. And, when it is mature they will either be bright red or a dark purple/black.
Here in Hawaiʻi, many of us know of them as having two main varieties, the red kind (possibly the “Chamba” variety) and the purple/black kind (most likely the“Lolita” or “Zill dark” variety).
Surinam cherry skin is thin and the flesh is similar to a grape. There are anywhere from 1-3 inedible seeds inside. These seeds stay viable for a about month and produce similar plants and fruits as their parents. See more below on Eugenia Uniflora propagation.
Surinam Cherry Taste and Culinary Uses:
The flesh inside Surinam cherry is slightly translucent. But it is also tinted orange/red and is extremely juicy. These fruits can be anywhere from acid and sour to semi-sweet. The skins have a notable tannin taste, especially if slightly under ripe. The darker purple/crimson (Lolita) variety is known to be sweeter and less astringent or resinous. The taste is tropical, similar to gooseberry, grape, and cherries.
Although they are an extremely resilient plant, surinam cherries are not widely available in stores. On rare occasions you may be able to find them at a farmers market. This is mostly because they have a very short shelf life; their quality degrades rapidly after picking. The fruits bruise easily and begin to ferment within a day or more. For this reason, most people eat them directly off of the shrub, as is. However, they are commercially farmed in Brazil. See harvest and storage below on how to prolong shelf life for personal or commercial use.
Still, if you have a decent harvest you can do many things with this particular fruit. The obvious include making a Surinam cherry jam or jelly. Similarly you could make chutney for serving with meat or fish. Some people have made syrups with it for dessert or cocktails and other have pickled the ripe cherries. In Brazil, they make vinegar, wine and liquor with it.
Harvest and Storage:
The fruiting season of Surinam cherry varies greatly by region. In Florida it may ripen February-March, and then again months later around September-November. In Mediterranean areas it may fruit in the springtime around May. Here in Hawaiʻi, Surinam cherry fruits several times throughout the year depending on exact climate and rainfall. It only takes 3 weeks from flower to ripe fruit.
The fruits are edible once they become orange-orange red. But they will be less juicy, more firm and still somewhat resinous. Surinam fruit picked at this stage is best for processing (wine, jelly, chutney). It will have a longer shelf life during the harvest to end-product chain. Additionally, it is easier to remove the pits at this stage and still have intact flesh to process.
If you are going to eat them fresh, you should harvest them when they are bright red, or purple/black. They should have shiny undamaged skin. They should also easily separate from the stem during harvest. In both cases many resources suggest picking them 1x/day or even 2x/day to get a decent Surinam cherry harvest. Please note, to extend shelf life, refrigerate immediately after picking and the store them in the fridge in vented containers.
Surinam cherry health benefits:
Surinam cherry has a relatively high Vitamin A and Vitamin C content. They are also high in iron, calcium, niacin, and some B complex vitamins. Its dark red color is indicative of its antioxidant content: some of which are lycopene, beta-cryptoxanthin, gamma-carotene, and rubixanthin. The purple varieties contain anthocyanin – another potent antioxidant found in blackberries, blueberries etc.
Its traditional use as a medicine comes mostly from its astringent and antiseptic qualities. In addition to the health benefits of the fruit he leaves contain various properties and an essential oil which includes turpentine, citronella & cineole.
Concoctions from the fruit and or the leaves may help clearing symptoms of stomach upsets (diarrhea), fevers, respiratory problems and colds.
The leaves’s essential oils can repel flies and other insects. (Traditionally, the leaves were stripped and laid on the floor of shelters, as you walk on them and bruise them their essence repels flies.)
There are clinical studies showing that Cineole helps patients with pulmonary issues. Specifically, it helps to relieve inflammation of the mucus membrane enabling better breathing.
Contraindications & Toxicity
Do not eat the seeds, they are very resinous and may cause gastro-intestinal upset. People with sensitive respiratory passages have reported irriation during pruning of the Surinam plant.
Surinam is a tropical tree/shrub that can also thrive in Subtropical locations. It can survive temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit and altitudes as high as 5,000 feet (in Hawaii). Surprisingly, many people grow them as a hedge plant or ornamental. They can range from 8-20 feet tall (2.44-6.1 meters) and spread out 5 to 15 feet (1.52-4.57 meters).
They are somewhat slow-growing. However, most seedling plants will still start to fruit after 2-3 years. Occasionally they may take as long as 5-6 years to fruit. For hedge plants, you want to space them 2-5 feet apart. Otherwise spacing them 10 feet apart is sufficient.
These resilient plants are also very tolerant heat and many types of soil (except salty soils). They also like full sun and adequate amounts of water. This is one reason why they are considered invasive. For example, in South Florida they started taking over other indigenous species. They also naturalized in Bermuda and formed dense thickets of a monoculture forest.
How to plant surinam cherry seeds
The seeds are recalcitrant – you cannot store them for longer than a month. To plant, simply separate the seeds from the flesh and place in a pot with well draining soil and consistent moisture. The seeds will germinate in 3-4 weeks.
Grafting and air-layering are less common propagation methods, but are used in countries like Brazil where surinam cherries are commercially grown. Cleft grafts are common and they may also be planted as seedlings in the ground and later “top worked” with a superior variety.
A small young tree will bear around 6 pounds of fruit in a year while a mature large tree may bear up to 25 pounds a year.
At our fruit farm and nursery we often have Surinam cherry plants for sale. www.ainaexotics.com