By Kim Kido
Each year in the town of Ekwulumili, Nigeria, a potluck feast is held at the base of an udala tree to celebrate the women and children of the village. “Udala”, Ibo for white star apple (Chrysophyllum albidum), is a feminine symbol of fertility and generosity.
A star apple of unknown species with seeds arranged in the classic star pattern. (Photo credit: Forest and Kim Starr)
In addition to being the center of the town’s festival, the tree produces a fruit so delicious that children sometimes wait for the fruit to fall. The fruit is usually allowed to ripen on the tree and fall to the ground before it is collected and eaten since the immature fruit contains unpalatable sticky latex. In the same family as chicle, udala is picked immature in some places by children and chewed like gum. Besides children, Nigerian women sometimes eat the fruit to ease birthing. The fruit has a hundred times more vitamin C than oranges, and ten times that of guava.
Throughout West Africa, the fruits are also sold in local markets, fermented into wine, or made into jam. In Nigeria, the pit of the fruit is used to make a musical instrument. In some parts of West Africa, the oil is extracted from the seeds for cooking or to make soap. The seeds are also strung together to make anklets worn when dancing, or collected for children’s games. Latex is tapped from the tree trunk to make rubber, and the wood is used to make many things, including furniture, flooring, toys, and cabinets.
So similar to the white star apple is the African star apple (Chrysophyllum africanum) that they may be two varieties of the same species. This species yields fruit that tastes and looks similar to the white star apple, and the seed oil is also used for soapmaking and cooking. The timber is also of high quality and prized internationally, and both species have medicinal uses. Bark from the white star apple is used to treat yellow fever and malaria, for example, while that of the African star apple is used to treat sores and aid digestion.
Both species are on the decline. Once found in forests throughout tropical Africa, the white star apple can rarely be found in the wild today. The tree is more commonly found in villages, not as part of a grove or forest but as a single tree. The African star apple is deliberately grown in villages in Benin and southern Nigeria but elsewhere cultivation is uncommon. The decline of the African star apple in the Ngotto forest in the Central African Republic has been linked to the population decline of large animals like primates, elephants, and hornbills due to hunting. The animals eat the fruit and disperse its seeds so fewer animals translate to fewer trees.
These star apple species are two of over a dozen that exist in sub-Saharan Africa, all of which are related to the star apple species Chrysophyllum cainito found throughout Central America. With its genetic diversity and highly desirable fruit and timber, both African species have the potential to be improved and commercially cultivated.
Have you tried this fruit or others in its family (e.g. canistel, abiu, sapodilla)?
Kim Kido is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
To read more about indigenous crops, see: Shalakh Apricot: Protecting a Species’ Diversity, and a Local Culture, African rock fig: A fruit with historical significance and potential for the future, Every Thorn has its Rose: Kei Apple is both food and fence!, and False Yam: A Famine Prevention Trifecta.