Cherimoya, or custard apple, is a creamy, tropical fruit that you may be able to grow for yourself.
According to Mark Twain, cherimoya is “the pride of the [Hawaiian] islands, the most delicious fruit known to men.” He went on to explain that cherimoya has a soft pulp that is eaten with a spoon. Many describe the fruit as tasting similar to pears, but creamier and better. These fruits do not ship or store well, which is why you rarely, if ever, see them in stores. Cherimoya are often considered one of the three best fruits in the world.
Cherimoya is a fast-growing, dense tropical tree or shrub with a relatively small root system. Trees range from 16 to 30 feet in height. Grown outside of their traditional range of the Andes, Bolivia, and Peru, these evergreen trees may become briefly deciduous. Leaves are dark green and glossy with large veins and can be up to 9” long. Stems and young branches are covered with rust-colored hairs. Leaves may also have these hairs.
The small, fleshy green and occasionally pink flowers are unique in that they bloom first as female flowers and a second time as male, lasting only two days. The petals of female flowers are held tightly together, while male flower petals open widely. Cherimoya seeds are black, glossy, bean-like, and poisonous, so don’t eat them.
Cherimoya fruits average 1 to 2 pounds, but they can weigh 5 pounds or more.They may be oval, conical, or somewhat heart-shaped and up to 8” across. The flesh is white, fragrant, and delicious.
The skin of a cherimoya fruit may be green our brown when ripe. Ripe green-skinned cherimoya are described as having a texture similar to pears or papayas. Ripe brown-skinned cherimoya have a texture and flavor similar to custard. The problem is, brown skin can also mean the fruit has gone bad and started to rot, or that it spent too much time in the refrigerator.
Cherimoyas are classified according to the degree of skin irregularity. Many varieties exhibit scale-like structures, called areoles:
How to grow cherimoya
Cherimoya (Annona cherimola) can be grown in U.S. Hardiness Zones 9-11, as well as Sunset zones 18 through 24. These trees prefer higher elevations, hot, sunny days and cool, moist nights. Cherimoya trees grow best in acidic soil with a pH of 5.0 to 6.5 and good drainage. You should place your cherimoya tree where it will be protected from strong winds and scorching summer days.
Most cherimoya trees are purchased as grafted bare root stock. A hole should be dug wide enough for the roots to spread out, but no deeper than is needed to cover those roots. Proper tree planting depth keeps the graft and crown above ground. Do not tamp down the soil. Instead, mud in your new tree to get rid of air pockets and to provide the water it needs.
As your cherimoya tree is actively growing, it should be watered regularly. Do not irrigate your cherimoya while it is dormant. Cherimoya trees perform best if they receive a balanced fertilizer, such as 8-8-8, every three months, starting in the middle of winter.
Cherimoya fruit is heavy, so it is important to train your cherimoya tree to have strong branches. Each year, two-thirds of the previous year’s growth should be removed, along with any dead, diseased, or rubbing branches. Generally speaking, only those branches that emerge at a 60° angle from the trunk are retained. These fast-growing trees can easily be espaliered.
Like avocados, the flowers are hermaphroditic. They open as females on the first morning, close up for the night, and reopen later the second day as male. Because cherimoya trees are native to South America, most of our northern pollinators do not recognize cherimoya blossoms. It is believed that a certain tiny beetle pollinates native cherimoya flowers. Cherimoya flowers also have mechanisms that prevent self-pollination. This means you may need to hand-pollinate your cherimoya flowers to obtain any fruit. Don’t worry, hand-pollinating is easy. Simply take a male flower and touch its anther to the pistil of a female flower. This may need to be done several times but, for a 5-pound fruit, it sounds like a good trade!
Cherimoya pests and diseases
Cherimoya is generally disease-free, though it can become infected with Armillaria root rot, Verticillium wilt, and crown rot. Ants and mealybugs will cause the most problems, followed by Abbot’s bagworm moth (Oiketicus kubeyi), Conchaspis angraeci scale, fruit flies, hairstreak butterfly caterpillars (Thecla), leaf miners, seed borers, and thrips. Seeds are often infested with weevils.
If you live where a cherimoya tree can grow, you owe it to yourself and your family to give it a try.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!