Unlike its oriental relatives the litchi, the longan, and the rambutan, the mamoncillo is strictly an American plant. It is cultivated in the West Indies and on the neighboring mainland of South America, in which latter region it is considered to be indigenous. In Porto Rico and Cuba it is a popular fruit among the poorer classes.
In habit and foliage the species resembles the soapberry Sapindus Saponaria). The tree, which grows slowly, is erect, shapely, 30 to 40 or sometimes as much as 60 feet high. The leaves are compound, with two pairs of elliptic-lanceolate, acute, glabrous leaflets, the lower pair about half the size of the upper. The small flowers, which are produced in short panicles, are followed by clusters of smooth round fruits about the size of plums. The outer covering of these fruits is thick and leathery, and green on the surface; it incloses a large round seed surrounded by soft, yellowish, translucent, juicy pulp. The flavor is said to be usually sweet and pleasant, but in many varieties it is acid, especially if the fruit is not fully ripe.
The generic name Melicocca means honey-berry, and is intended to refer to the flavor of the fruit; but some of the mamoncillos grown in Cuba are frequently as sour as limes. Indeed, one of the common names for this fruit in southern Florida is Spanish-lime; it is also there called genip. Mamon-cillo is the Cuban name. In Porto Rico it is known as genipe. In the French islands this same name (supposedly) is current, in the form quenette or hnepe.
P. W. Reasoner says: "The fruit markets well in Key West, and there are a number of fine bearing trees in that place, and on the other islands. It is worthy of more attention all over south Florida." At Miami and Palm Beach it grows well, but some of the trees do not bear fruit. The mature plant withstands several degrees of frost without injury. It does not require rich soil, nor is it particularly exacting in other ways. So far as is known, it has never been grown to fruiting stage in California.
The mamoncillo has been propagated up to the present time exclusively by seed. It will probably lend itself, however, to the vegetative methods which are employed with its relatives, No horticultural varieties have been established.