Why do some fruits continue ripening after being harvested, while others do not? It all depends on whether or not they are climacteric.
Ripening is a highly complex developmental process. It is largely dictated by plant genetics and partially affected by climate. As fruits ripen, distasteful flavors are broken down, sugar levels and other pleasant flavors increase, pectins soften, acid and carbohydrate levels change, colors change, and a lovely aroma is released. One of the most important players in the ripening process is ethylene gas.
Ethylene gas is a plant hormone produced by nearly all fruits. It is used in response to injury and to ripen some fruits. Climacteric fruits have very sensitive ethylene gas receptors. It doesn’t matter whose ethylene gas it is. Once these receptors are triggered, a domino effect of ripening is activated: respiration and ethylene gas production spike, whether or not they are still attached to the parent plant. Increased respiration and ethylene gas drive the ripening process in climacteric fruits.
Ethylene gas is the reason why bananas or apples stored near other climacteric fruits will cause them to ripen faster. It is also why bananas are now sold with plastic or wax over the stem ends - to reduce ethylene gas emissions.
Non-climacteric fruits also produce ethylene gas, but at much smaller rates. These fruits rely on other methods of ripening. This is a new area of study and very little is known at this time except that auxins and abscisic acid are believed to play critical roles.
Which fruits are climacteric?
Apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, blueberries, cantaloupes, figs, kiwifruit, mangos, nectarines, papayas, peaches, pears, pineapple guava, plums, tomatoes, and some hot peppers are climacteric. This means they can be removed from their parent plant and will continue to ripen.
Blackberries and raspberries, cherries, citrus, cucumbers, eggplants, grapes, melons, peppers, pineapples, pomegranates, pumpkins, squashes, strawberries, and watermelons are not climacteric and must be left where they are until they have ripened fully. If these fruits are harvested before they are ripe, put them in the compost pile or feed them to your chickens because they will never ripen. There are some non-climacteric apricots and melons, while some varieties of grapes and strawberries, while not climacteric, do have active ethylene gas receptors.
Whether a fruit is climacteric or not, leaving it on the parent plant for as long as possible is the only way to get the best flavor and nutritional value.
After the climacteric stage has been reached, plant respiration returns to normal or below normal and fruits become far more susceptible to fungal infections. In other words, after climacteric (and non- climacteric) fruits have reached their peak of flavor and sweetness, they start to rot.
Now you know.
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