My favorite fruit in the world is Guanábana (Annona muricata, aka “Soursop”).

Guanábana / Annonaceae fruit

A very large guanábana fruit in a Colombian tienda. Photo Credit: jjrestrepoa

Native to Latin America, it also grows in tropical Southeast Asia and Africa. In the Philippines it is called “Guayabano”. The first time I tried it was in a smoothie at the Café Havana in Greenbelt Mall, Makati. Since I returned to the US, I have vainly attempted to find the fruit in grocery stores and Asian markets, although I did get to try it again on a recent trip to Puerto Rico. Right when I was about to give up, however, I discovered that another South American fruit, the cherimoya, is in the same genus and is more widely available (at least here in Charlottesville). Furthermore, one of my coworkers shared with me that there is a fruit called pawpaw found in North American forests that is in the same family. Actually, it’s the tree with the gigantic, deciduous leaves. Kentucky State University has a major pawpaw research program, and offers a great general information site. Here’s our exchange, as well as some comments from my college botany professor:

[ME] I looked up pawpaw and it is indeed in the Annonaceae family. In fact, the genus to which it belongs, Asimina, is one of the only temperate representatives from the family. Most of the other edible fruits in that family are from the tropical genus Annona. Annonaceae, along with Magnoliaceae and the nutmeg family Myristicaceae, are all very closely related in that they are from a “primitive” (ancient) lineage of flowering plants, lacking well defined petals or sepals and with leaves characterized by a “ranalean” odor of aromatic, essential oils when crushed (botanically, they are part of the order Magnoliales).

[STEVE, my coworker] Incidentally, there are lots of pawpaw trees around the lower parts of the Old Rag hike, but I haven’t yet seen one with fruit.  I have seen them with fruit near Sugar Hollow reservoir and, as I mentioned, a few weeks ago [another coworker] brought one in that he picked near the Monticello trail.

[DR. KNOX, my professor] Yes, I’ve had cherimoya in Peru, and it is delicious.  It’s been so long since I’ve eaten it and I only had one infructescence, so I don’t remember much, other than that it was sweet and similar to pawpaw.  In Cherimoya, the many pistils in each flower enlarge until they are packed tightly together to give an accessory fruit that looks like a grenade.  I’ve seen other Annonaceae growing in the wild in Panama and Costa Rica. As for pawpaw, fruit production seems to vary a lot from population to population.  For example, I have watched the many pawpaw tree on our back campus for years, and though they form many flowers, I scarcely ever see fruit. I’ve  wondered if they lack the appropriate genotypes to set seed and fruit, or if conditions for pollination, fertilization, or fruit development are not very good there.  But then downstream about a mile along the Maury the trees usually do produce  fruit.

So, why isn’t this fruit more widely cultivated and consumed? According to the Christian Science Monitor, the fruit’s rapid spoilage rate, poisonous seeds, carrion-fly pollination mechanism doomed its prospects for commercialization. Nevertheless, I hope you all won’t hesitate to try one of the delicious fruits from this fascinating plant family if you get the chance- there might even be one in your own back yard (just omit the seeds, like a watermelon). I think I’ll go eat one right now!