The sapote is one of the important fruits of the Central American lowlands. It furnishes to the Indians a nourishing and agreeable food, obtainable during a certain part of the year in considerable abundance. Cook and Collins remark : "It was this fruit that kept Cortes and his army alive on their famous march from Mexico City to Honduras."
In the hot and humid lowlands the sapote becomes a large tree, often 65 feet high, with a thick trunk and stout branches. The Indians, when clearing the forest in order to plant coffee or other crops, usually spare the sapote trees they encounter, for they regard the fruit highly. The foliage is abundant, and light green in color. The leaves, which are clustered toward the ends of the stout branchlets, are obovate to oblanceolate in outline, broadest toward the apex, and 4 to 10 inches long. The small flowers are produced in great numbers along the branchlets. The sepals are eight to ten, imbricate, in several series; the corolla is tubular, whitish, with five lobes. The stamens are five and the ovary is hairy, five-celled, with one ovule in each cell. The fruit is elliptic or oval in form, commonly 3 to 6 inches long, russet-brown in color, the skin thick and woody and the surface somewhat scurfy. The flesh is firm, salmon-red to reddish brown in color, and finely granular in texture. The large elliptic seed can be lifted out of the fruit as easily as that of an avocado; it is hard, brown, and shining, except on the ventral surface, which is whitish and somewhat rough. To one unaccustomed to the exceedingly sweet fruits of the tropics, the flavor of the sapote is at first somewhat cloying because of its richness and lack of acidity. When made into a sherbet, as is done in Habana, it is sure to be relished at first trial. Inferior or improperly ripened sapotes will be found to have a pronounced squash-like flavor.
Fig. 44. The sapote (Calocarpum mammosum). (X 1/3)
Pittier, whose studies of the sapotaceous fruits have done much to clear away the botanical confusion in which they have been involved, considers the sapote to be indigenous to Central America. Outside of its native area it is grown in the West Indies, in South America, and in the Philippines. In Cuba it is particularly abundant and the fruit highly esteemed. Though it has been planted in southeastern Florida it has never succeeded in that region. The limiting factor there seems to be unfavorable soil rather than temperature, while in California it has always succumbed to the cold, even when grown in the most protected situations.
In the British West Indies the sapote is called mammee-sapota, marmalade-plum, and marmalade-fruit. In the French West Indies it is known as sapote and grosse sapote. In Cuba it is called mamey Colorado and, less commonly, mamey zapote. Throughout its native area, southern Mexico and Central America, it is known in Spanish as zapote (from the Nahuatl or Aztec name tzapotl) and this name is used also in Ecuador and Colombia. In the Philippines the term is chico-mamey. The more important botanical synonyms are : Achras mammosa, L., Lucuma mammosa, Gaertn., Vitellaria mammosa, Radlk., and Achradelpha mammosa, Cook. The name mamey, improperly applied to this fruit, results in its being confused with Mammea americana, L.
The Indians of Central America commonly eat the sapote out of hand, but it is occasionally made into a rich preserve and it may be employed in other ways. In Cuba it is used as a "filler" in making guava-cheese, and a thick jam, called crema de mamey Colorado, is also prepared from it. The seed is an article of commerce in Central America, where the large kernel is roasted and used to mix with cacao in making chocolate.
The tree is tropical in its requirements. In Guatemala it is most abundant at elevations from sea-level to 2000 feet; at 3000 feet it is still quite common, but at 4000 feet it is rarely seen. At higher elevations it is injured by the cold and makes very slow growth. It thrives on heavy soils, such as the clays and clay-loams of Guatemala. It is believed in Florida that the plant does not like a soil which is rich in lime, and that for this reason it has failed to succeed at Miami and other points in the state where conditions otherwise seem to be favorable. P. W. Reasoner considered it to be as frost-resistant as the sapodilla.
Seedlings start bearing when seven or eight years old if grown under favorable conditions, and when of good size yield regularly and abundantly. The fruits are picked when mature, and laid away in a cool place to ripen, which requires about a week. If shipped as soon as picked from the tree, they can be sent to northern markets without difficulty. Sapotes from Cuba and Central America are often seen in the markets of Tampa and New Orleans. The season of ripening extends over a period of two or three months, usually beginning about August in the West Indies and Central America. Differences in elevation, and consequently in climate of course affect the time of ripening.
All of the sapote trees in tropical America are seedlings. Neither budding nor grafting has yet been used with this species, so far as is known. The seeds, which cannot be kept long, germinate more readily if the thick husk is removed before planting. They should be placed in sand or light soil, laid on their sides, and scarcely covered. When the young plants are six or eight inches high, they may be transferred to four- or five-inch pots. Their growth is rapid at first, but much slower after they have exhausted the food reserves stored in the large seed. It is probable that budding will prove as successful with the sapote as it has with the sapodilla. Seedlings differ greatly in the size, shape, and quality of their fruits. The best one should be propagated by some vegetative means.