This is probably the most widely cultivated species of Spondias, although it is not so extensively distributed, in its wild state, as the yellow mombin. It is known in many tropical countries and can be cultivated successfully as far north as southern Florida. While not generally considered a fruit of excellent quality, an occasional tree is much superior to the average and is worth propagating.
The ambarella is an erect, stately, semi-deciduous tree, usually stiff in appearance. It reaches a maximum height of 60 feet. The leaves are large, commonly 8 to 12 inches long; the leaflets, 11 to 23 in number, are oval to oblong in outline, 2 1/2 to 3 inches in length, remotely serrate, and acuminate at the apex. Like those of the imbu, they are equilateral or nearly so. The small whitish flowers are produced in large loose panicles 8 to 12 inches in length.
The fruit is oval or slightly obovoid in form, 2 to 3 inches long, and orange-yellow in color. The skin is as thick as that of the mango, but tougher. The flesh is firm, very juicy, and of pale yellow color. Its subacid flavor suggests that of the apple; sometimes, however, it is resinous or pungent. The seed is large, oval, 1 inch in length, covered with stiff spines or bristles to which the surrounding flesh clings tenaciously.
Although larger than those of other species of Spondias, the fruits of the ambarella are not usually so pleasantly flavored as are choice imbus or the best red mombins (see below). They are produced in long pendent clusters of two to ten. In Florida they ripen during the winter: in Tahiti the season is said to be May to July, and in Hawaii November to April. The composition of the fruit, according to an analysis by Alice R. Thompson of Hawaii, is as follows: Total solids 14.53 per cent, ash 0.44 per cent, acids 0.47 per cent, protein 0.50 per cent, total sugars 10.54 per cent, fat 0.28 per cent, and fiber 0.85 per cent.
Ambarella is the Sinhalese name used in Ceylon, and is preferred as being more euphonious and attractive than the name Otaheite-apple. The latter term is current in some of the British colonies, but is sometimes applied also to a different fruit, the ohia. Jew-plum is another name for the ambarella, used in Jamaica. The French call the fruit pomme Cythere. In Polynesia its name is vi or em, the former word (spelled wi) being used in Hawaii. In Brazil the Portuguese name is caja-manga. Spondias dulcis Forst. is a botanical synonym of S. cytherea Sonnerat.
The tree is considered indigenous in Polynesia. It was brought to Jamaica in 1782, and again in 1792 (on this second occasion by Captain Bligh, who introduced the breadfruit into the West Indies from Tahiti). It has not become popular in Cuba, nor is it commonly grown on the mainland of South America, with the exception of certain parts of Brazil. In South Florida it is successful as far north as Palm Beach. No trees are known to have reached fruiting size in California. The winters there are probably too cool for it.
While the tree thrives best on deep rich soils, it has been successful in Florida (though not reaching large size) upon shallow sandy land. Thomas Firminger says that the seeds do not germinate readily, and that plants "are usually obtained by grafting upon seedlings of S. mangifera." P. J. Wester has found that the species can be shield-budded in the same manner as the avocado; he says, "Use nonpetioled, slender, mature, but green and smooth budwood; cut large buds with ample wood-shield, 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 inches long; insert the buds in the stock at a point of approximately the same age and appearance as the cion."
Early travelers who visited Polynesia spoke of this fruit in high terms. More recently, however, it has been likened to a "very bad mango," and several writers have adjudged that it did not merit cultivation. Much depends on the variety; while the average may be poor, an occasional one is good. Only superior kinds propagated by some vegetative means should be planted. As yet no attempt has been made to find the best varieties and establish them as horticultural forms.