Annona squamosa: Sugar-apple

Family: Annonaceae
Common name: Sugar-apple, Sweetsop, Custard apple

It’s a joyful thing to squeeze open a Sugar-apple or Custard apple, to see the aromatic, white segments of fruits beautifully arranged inside. Sugar-apple trees grow to a height of 5-6 meters like a large shrub or a small tree, with a well-branched trunk and drooping stems. The trunk looks woody with many raised lenticels that help in air exchange between the plant and the atmosphere.

Leaves are simple, alternate, green, long, and ovate measuring 10-15 cms. They are bright green, mostly hairless with small hairs on the bottom surface only in tender leaves. Petioles connecting the leaves to the stem are about 1-2 cms long.

Sugar-apple flowers are very pretty, like hanging decorative lights, single or in small bunches for 2-3. They are 1-2 cms long with 3 large fleshy petals forming a triangle hanging from thin, green stalks.

There are 3 inner petals that are almost inconspicuous, prominent stamens, and style which can only be seen if you bend down and look inside the flower that hangs down like a bell.

The pistils of sugar-apple flowers form small aggregate, rounded, green fruits with many knobbly segments. Fruit stalks are thick and strong enough to hold a fruit that’s 500-800 grams.

These segments enlarge as the fruit grows larger, most segments containing an elongated oval seed inside. Inner pulp is white or cream in color, easily accessible once the fruit is ripe.

Gently squishing the fruit will help break the segments open revealing a white inner core surrounded by long segments of fruit, each containing a seed inside. Seeds are dark brown or black, about 1.3 to 1.6 cms long. There are 20-40 seeds in each fruit, depending on the variant.

Though Sugar-apples are native to South America, they are now cultivated in most tropical countries. They are preferred fruits in India, very commonly seen in fruit shops and pushcarts filled with green, rounded sugar-apples, commonly called custard apples.

The name custard apple is used for many Annona fruits, and the technically correct name is Sugar-apple. These trees are very easy to grow and maintenance-free, producing fruits within 1-2 years of growth. A mature five-year-old tree can produce more than 50 sugar apples in a season.

These sweet, aromatic fruits are used to make juices, milkshakes, jellies, sherbets, etc. Sugar apples also have some medicinal uses in traditional herbal medicine, used in the treatment of wounds, lice, rheumatism, sleeplessness, cold, chills, dysentery, and urinary tract infections.

But the stems, roots, and seeds are toxic since they contain alkaloids that cause adverse reactions on consumption. The seeds when heated can produce an oil that is used as a pesticide. Fibers from the bark can be used to makes ropes and cordage. Wood is not strong enough for construction and is mostly used a fuel.

Propagation is through seeds, air layering, grafting, and by planting young stem cuttings.