say a number of Africa’s indigenous but not widely researched plants can help
improve nutrition and serve as alternative food sources in times of drought. One family of those
plants is known as the custard apple [Annonaceae]. It includes a number of
species, such as the junglesop and the groundsop. Another species of the
custard apple is the African custard
apple [Annona senegalensis].
The bush is
known in villages from west to southern Africa. It produces yellow-orange
fruits that are said to be similar in taste to apricots but smell like
pineapples. The fruit is high in calories and in vitamin C, iron and potassium
Adi Damania, a
genetic resource scientist in the Department of Plant Science at the University
of California (at Davis) says a version
of the plant (Annona squamosa) also
grows in Latin America and in India. The British
colonizers gave named it. According to Damania, "when you open the fruit, you don’t cut it, you press it open, pull it apart. When you
see inside, it looks like custard before you plunge your spoon inside."
He says those large
black seeds, which must be spit out, make it difficult to market the fruit. Indian scientists have tried to develop a version with smaller seeds,
but so far, the result is a fruit that doesn’t taste good.
says the custard apple remains a popular fruit in part of Africa, Asia and the Americas.
"Its best use in
recent years," he says, "has been in the making of ice cream (from its white pulp). Custard
apple ice cream is a flavor in Indiaand
tropical countries. It tastes wonderful. It has the same texture as a vanilla
ice cream but with the tasted of custard."
Besides its use as
an ice cream or pudding, African custard apple is often mixed with weaning
foods for infants. The pulp is also used in making fermented drinks.
The custard apple
tree is often found in sandy and loamy soils throughout much of tropical Africa
but can tolerate some of the cold of parts of subtropical South Africa. According
to the US National Research Council, which includes the tree in its series of publications called Lost Crops of Africa, the custard apple grows best in warm and
fairly moist conditions, especially in mixed woodlands and open savannas.
Food scientists say
with research, the custard apple could be planted more extensively and become a
more common staple in local and city markets. They say it could also be bred
with it some of its relatives in Brazil and other parts of the Americas to
produce varieties with smaller seeds and with drought resistance. Also, the African
custard apple tends to be resistant to some of fungal diseases that affect its
American cousins. Cross-breeding the two could create higher yielding and
tastier fruit that are immune to bacterial and fungal diseases.
Scientists are also
looking into of medicinal uses of the African custard apple: in Swaziland, the
bark is used to treat open sores, and some members of the African custard apple
family are known to repel insects.
The African variety
is not as familiar to many people as the other species. That could change, say scientists, if cross-breeding varieties is successful.