Christopher Columbus, after his first visit to Veragua in 1502, is said to have described the mamey as a fruit the size of a large lemon, with the flavor of the peach. Gonzalo Hernandez de Oviedo, about twenty years later, described it more fully and reported it as most excellent.
As a horticultural product, the mamey remains in very much the same position which it occupied at the time of the Discovery. It is a dooryard tree, nowhere cultivated on a commercial scale, but considered by the Indians a delicious fruit. Europeans who have settled in tropical America have learned that it yields a preserve which tastes remarkably like that made from the apricot.
1 Agr. Bull. of the Federated Malay States, 3, 1915.
The tree, which is one of the most beautiful and conspicuous in the West Indies, reaches 60 feet in height. Its trunk sometimes attains a diameter of 3 or 4 feet, while the crown is of a deeper and richer green than that of most other trees. The leaves are oblong-obovate in form, rounded or blunt at the apex, 4 to 8 inches long, and thick and glossy. The white flowers, which are solitary or clustered in the axils of the young shoots, are fragrant and about an inch broad. The petals are four to six in number, the anthers numerous, and the stigma peltate. The fruit is oblate to round in form, and commonly 4 to 6 inches in diameter. It has a slightly roughened russet surface and a leathery skin about 1/8 inch thick. Surrounding the one to four large seeds and often adhering to them is the bright yellow flesh, juicy but of firm texture. The flavor is subacid and pleasant, but the texture is so close that the fruit is commonly thought better when stewed.
The mamey is considered indigenous in the West Indies and the northern part of South America. Outside of its native region it is grown in Mexico and Central America, and occasionally in other regions, but it has not become common anywhere in the Orient, so far as is known. It is successfully cultivated in southern Florida as far north as Palm Beach. Though not common in this region, fine specimens are occasionally seen at Miami and other places. It is not grown in California, being too susceptible to frost for any part of that state.
Mamey, the name by which this fruit was known to the first Spanish settlers in the New World, is considered to have come from the aboriginal language of the island of Santo Domingo. From it have arisen the English common names mammee and mammee-apple, both widely used in the West Indies. The term mamey de Santo Domingo is sometimes used in Cuba and other Spanish-speaking countries to distinguish the species from the mamey Colorado or mamey zapote (Lucuma mammosa). In southern Brazil it is known as abrico do Para (Para apricot). The most usual French name is abricot de Saint Domingue.
From the fragrant white flowers a liqueur is distilled in the French West Indies which is known as eau de Creole or creme de Creole. The wood is hard, durable, and well adapted to building purposes. It is beautifully grained and takes a high polish. The resinous gum obtained from the bark is used to extract chigoes from the feet.
The fruit is sometimes sliced and served with wine or with sugar and cream, but it is usually preferred by Europeans in the form of sauce, preserves, or jam. Mamey preserves are manufactured commercially in Cuba and a few other tropical countries.
The mamey is tropical in its requirements, and cannot be grown in regions which commonly experience more than two or three degrees of frost. Large trees were cut back to the trunks by a freeze of 26° above zero at Miami, Florida. While the best soil for it is a rich, well-drained, sandy loam, the tree has made good growth on the shallow sandy lands of southeastern Florida. Little attention has been given to its culture in any region. Seedlings do not come into bearing under six or seven years of age; when mature they usually bear regularly and abundantly. The ripening season in the West Indies is in the summer.
Propagation is usually by seeds, which germinate readily if planted in light sandy loam. Some asexual method should be employed to propagate desirable varieties originating as chance seedlings. Inarching, which succeeds with the mangosteen, should be applicable to this plant as well; budding may also prove to be successful, performed as with the mango. No named varieties have been established as yet. It will be worth while to search out the best existing seedlings in tropical America and propagate them.