In Cuba, Jamaica, and several other tropical American countries, the star-apple is a common dooryard tree and its fruit is held in much the same estimation as the sapote, the sapodilla, and the sugar-apple. For its ornamental value alone it merits cultivation. Charles Kingsley, in his brief account of West Indian fruits, refers to the beauty of this plant. "And what is the next," he asks, after mentioning some of the trees seen on one of his rambles, "like an evergreen peach, shedding from the under side of every leaf a golden light, -call it not shade? A star-apple."
On the deep rich soils of Cuba the tree sometimes reaches 50 feet in height, although in southern Florida it rarely exceeds 30 feet. The leaves are oval or oblong, about 4 inches in length, deep green and glossy above, and golden-brown, with a sheen like that of satin, beneath. The flowers are small and inconspicuous, purplish white in color. The fruit is commonly round, sometimes oblate, and 2 to 4 inches in diameter. The surface is smooth, somewhat glossy, dull purple in some varieties, light green in others. On cutting the fruit transversely, it is found to be differentiated into two kinds of flesh; directly under the thin tenacious skin is a layer of soft, somewhat granular flesh, concolorous with the skin, and not very juicy; inclosed by this are eight translucent whitish segments in which the seeds are embedded. When the fruit is halved thus, transversely, these cut segments present a star-like appearance, whence the common name. Both kinds of flesh are sweet, entirely lacking in acidity, with the characteristic sapotaceous flavor. Normally there is one seed in each segment, but frequently several are aborted, leaving three to five in the fruit. They are ovate to elliptic in outline, flattened, £ inch long, hard, brown, and glossy. The appearance of a halved star-apple is strikingly suggestive of that of the mangosteen.
Fig. 45. The star-apple (Chryso-phyllum Cainito), a popular fruit in Cuba. It is green or purple in color, and the flesh is melting, sweet, and pleasantly flavored. (X about 1/2)
The fruit is usually eaten fresh. In Jamaica it is sometimes made into preserves, and also (according to P. W. Reasoner) into a mixture somewhat cryptically called "matrimony," which is prepared by scooping out the inside pulp and adding it to a glass of sour orange juice. An analysis made in Hawaii by Alice R. Thompson shows the ripe fruit to contain: Total solids 11.47 per cent, ash 0.39, acids 0.12, protein 2.33, total sugars 4.40, fat 1.38, and fiber 0.85.
The tree is wild in the West Indies and in Central America. It is cultivated in the same area and also in South America, Mexico, Florida, and to a limited extent in Hawaii and a few other countries. According to H. F. Macmillan it was introduced into Ceylon in 1802, but it is not commonly grown anywhere in the Orient, so far as is known. In the English colonies it is known almost invariably as star-apple; in the French colonies (and sometimes in Cuba) it is called caimite; while in most Spanish-speaking countries the word is caimito.
The plant is tropical in its requirements. P. W. Reasoner notes: "When small, the tree is not apt to sprout up again if killed back by frost, and it is perhaps somewhat more tender than the sapodilla." Old trees are to be found at Miami and Palm Beach, Florida, which proves that the species is sufficiently hardy to grow in the southern part of that state. So far as is known, no plants have ever grown to fruiting size in California, although they have been planted in the most protected situations. The star-apple likes a humid atmosphere with relatively high temperatures throughout the year. Apparently it is not particular in regard to soil; it grows well both on the shallow sandy soils of southeastern Florida and on the deep clay loams of Cuba.
Propagation is usually by seed. Since there is much difference among seedlings, however, it will be desirable to employ some asexual means of propagation in order to perpetuate as varieties any choice kinds which originate. Budding will probably prove satisfactory. It is reported that cuttings can be grown, if they are made from well-ripened shoots and placed over strong moist heat. Seeds retain their viability for several months, are easily transported through the mails, and should be sown in light sandy loam.
Some trees yield heavy crops of fruit, while many others are shy bearers. The ripening season in the West Indies is April and May. The fruits are not good unless allowed to remain on the tree until fully ripe; if picked when immature they are astringent and contain a sticky white latex.
Two races are common, one green-fruited and the other purple-fruited. They are not known to differ in flavor or other characteristics except color.