Like the oil palm (Eloeis guineensis), now common on the coast of Brazil, the akee is an African plant which was brought to America in the days of the slave trade. According to William Harris, it reached Jamaica in 1778. It is now common in that island, and is cultivated on a limited scale in other parts of the West Indies, as well as on the mainland of tropical America. In the Orient it is rare. Its native home is in tropical West Africa.
On deep rich soils the tree becomes 35 or 40 feet in height. It is erect in habit, with an open crown and stiff branches. The leaves are abruptly pinnate, with three to five pairs of short-stalked, obovate-oblong leaflets, the upper ones 4 to 6 inches in length, the lowest pair much shorter. The small flowers are borne in short axillary racemes. The sepals and petals are five in number, the latter greenish white in color. The fruit is a curious-looking capsule, about 3 inches long, triangular in general outline, and straw-colored to magenta-red. When ripe it opens along three sutures, exposing three round shining seeds, with a whitish fleshy body at the base of each. The fleshy substance (technically the arillus), resembles in appearance the brain of a small animal. It is firm and oily in texture, and has a somewhat nutty flavor. When fried in butter it is a delicious morsel, and it is excellent boiled with salt fish. It has long been believed that the akee, unless cooked, is poisonous. J. J. Bowrey, 1 analytical chemist to the Government of Jamaica, found that:
"Unripe akees if eaten freely bring on vomiting. Decaying akees are decidedly unwholesome, and may even be very poisonous. This is true of many foods. Fresh ripe akees are good and harmless food, rather rich it is true, but to most persons quite wholesome. There may be individual idiosyncrasies with regard to akee, as there are to such usually harmless foods as mutton, duck, pork, mushrooms, etc. The red membrane of the akee, so commonly believed to be poisonous, is perfectly harmless. If the fruit be ripe and fresh, which can be known by its being open, the edible portion firm, and the red part bright in color, it may be considered a good and safe food. But if the fruit be not ripe, or if there are any signs of decay, such as mouldiness or softening of the edible portion, or a dingy color in the ordinary red part, the fruit should not be eaten."
1 Kew Bull. 1892, p. 109.
The name akee came to America from Africa along with the fruit itself, and is generally used (sometimes as akee-apple) in the British colonies where the tree is grown. In Spanish-speaking countries the usual name is seso vegetal, or vegetable brains. Cupania sapida, Voigt., is a botanical synonym of Blighia sapida, Koen.
In tropical America the akee is grown most commonly in the hot moist lowlands. Since it has succeeded in southern Florida, however, the species cannot be considered strictly tropical in its requirements. When young it is susceptible to frost, but plants which have attained four or five years' growth have passed through temperatures of 26° above zero with very little injury. Several have been grown at Miami and Palm Beach, and the fruit which they have produced has been equal in every respect to that grown in the tropics. No large plants are known in California and it is doubtful whether the species will succeed anywhere in that state. It thrives on deep loamy soils with abundant moisture, but makes satisfactory (though slow) growth on the shallow sandy soils of southeastern Florida. It has come into bearing at Miami when about five years old.
Propagation is usually by seed, but vegetative means should prove successful. No horticultural varieties have been established.