"Deliciousness itself" is the phrase Mark Twain used to characterize the cherimoya. Sir Clements Markham quotes an even more flattering description :
"The pineapple, the mangosteen, and the cherimoya," says Dr. Seemann, "are considered the finest fruits in the world. I have tasted them in those localities in which they are supposed to attain their highest perfection, - the pineapple in Guayaquil, the mangosteen in the Indian Archipelago, and the cherimoya on the slopes of the Andes, - and if I were called upon to act the part of a Paris I would without hesitation assign the apple to the cherimoya. Its taste, indeed, surpasses that of every other fruit, and Haenke was quite right when he called it the masterpiece of Nature."
The cherimoya at its best
The cherimoya is essentially a dessert fruit, and as such it certainly has few equals. Although its native home is close to the equator, it is not strictly tropical as regards its requirements, being, in fact, a subtropical fruit, and attaining perfection only where the climate is cool and relatively dry. At home it grows on plateaux and in mountain valleys where proximity to the equator is offset by elevation, with the result that the climate is as cool as that of regions hundreds of miles to the north or south.
Commercial cultivation of the cherimoya has been undertaken in a few places. This fruit has not, however, achieved the commercial prominence which it merits, and which it seems destined some day to receive.
That it should be unknown in most northern markets, notwithstanding that it grows as readily in many parts of the tropics and subtropics as the avocado, can only be due to the inferiority of the varieties which have been disseminated, to tardiness in utilizing vegetative means of propagation, and to insufficient attention to the cultural requirements of the tree. The best seedling varieties must be brought to light, they must be propagated by budding or grafting, and a careful study made of pollination, pruning, fertilization of the soil, and other cultural details as yet imperfectly understood. There is no reason why, when this has been done, cherimoya culture should not become an important horticultural industry in many regions. Experience in exporting the fruit from Madeira to London, and from Mexico to the United States, has shown that it can be shipped without difficulty. The demand for it in northern markets, once a regular supply is available, is certain to be keen.
The cherimoya is a small, erect or somewhat spreading tree, rarely growing to more than 25 feet high; on poor soils it may not reach more than 15 feet. The young growth is grayish and softly pubescent. The size of the leaves varies in different varieties; in some they are 4 to 6 inches long, in others 10 inches. In California a variety (originally from Tenerife, Canary Islands) with unusually large leaves has been listed by nurserymen under the name Annona macrocarpa. In form the leaves are ovate to ovate-lanceolate, sometimes obovate or elliptic; obtuse or obtusely acuminate at the apex, rounded at the base. The upper surface is sparsely hairy, the lower velvety tomentose. The fragrant flowers are about an inch long, solitary or sometimes two or three together, on short nodding peduncles set in the axils of the leaves. The three exterior petals are oblong-linear in form, greenish outside and pale yellow or whitish within; the inner three are minute and scale-like, and ovate or triangular in outline. As in other species of Annona, the stamens and pistils are numerous, crowded together on the fleshy receptacle.
The fruit is of the kind known technically as a syncarpium. It is formed of numerous carpels fused with the fleshy receptacle. It may be heart-shaped, conical, oval, or somewhat irregular in form. In weight it ranges from a few ounces to five pounds. Sixteen-pound cherimoyas have been reported, but it is doubtful whether they ever existed in reality. The surface of the fruit in some varieties is smooth; in others it is covered with small conical protuberances. It is light green in color. The skin is very thin and delicate, making it necessary to handle the ripe fruit with care to avoid bruising it. The flesh is white, melting in texture, and moderately juicy. Numerous brown seeds, the size and shape of a bean, are embedded in it. The flavor is subacid, delicate, suggestive of the pineapple and the banana.
The cherimoya is sometimes confused with other species of Annona. W. E. Safford,1 who has studied the botany of this genus thoroughly, writes:
"For centuries the cherimoya has been cultivated and several distinct varieties have resulted. One of these has smooth fruit, devoid of protuberances, which has been confused with the inferior fruit of both Annona glabra and A. reticulata. The last two species, however, are easily distinguished by their leaves and flowers; Annona glabra, commonly known as the alligator apple or mangrove annona, having glossy laurel-like leaves and globose flowers with six ovate petals, and A. reticulata having long narrow glabrate leaves devoid of the velvety lining which characterizes those of the cherimoya."
1 In Bailey, Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture.
Annona Cherimola, Mill. is the Annona tripetala of Aiton; the plant which has been offered in California under the name A. suavissima is a horticultural form of A. Cherimola. (The orthography Anona Cherimolia was used until Safford showed that it is incorrect.)
The country of origin of the cherimoya remains somewhat in doubt. Alphonse DeCandolle, after weighing all the available evidence, said, "I consider it most probable that the species is indigenous in Ecuador, and perhaps in the neighboring part of Peru." The presence of the fruit in Mexico and Central America since an early day has led other botanists to assume that it might also be indigenous in the latter countries. Recently Safford has re-sifted the evidence and has reached the conclusion that "De-Candolle is in all probability correct in attributing it to the mountains of Ecuador and Peru. The common name which it bears, even in Mexico, is of Quichua origin . . . and terra-cotta vases modeled from cherimoya fruits have been dug up repeatedly from prehistoric graves in Peru."