Eugenias – South American Berries

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When we think of berries, we generally think of temperate zone plants like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. The term berry is defined simply as a fleshy fruit with one or more seeds. By tradition, the term is applied mostly to small fruits. Although the Year of the Berry has concluded, I would like to discuss here a group of Central and South American fruits that could be considered the South and Central American equivalents of our temperate zone berries, the genus Eugenia. The Eugenias belong to the large plant family Myrtaceae or myrtles. The myrtle family includes many fruiting plants, the best known of which is the ubiquitous tropical guava, Psidium guajava. Other genera within the Myrtaceae grown for their fruits include Feijoa, Myciaria, Campomanesia, and Syzygium. The genus Eugenia is exceedingly large. A search of the International Plant Names Index at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew gives 235 pages of entries at about 20 names per page. Even allowing for duplications and synonymy, there are more species in this single genus than the entire flora of most temperate zone regions. Many of these, if not most, bear edible berries. At one time, the genus name Eugenia was applied to species in both hemispheres but recently, the Old World species have been separated into the genus Syzygium. I will limit myself here to a discussion of eleven New World species already in cultivation. There are undoubtedly many species not in cultivation worthy of domestication. I’ll leave that to some future intrepid plant explorer. The most common Eugenia found in cultivation is Eugenia uniflora or Surinam Cherry. Other names for this plant are cereza de cayena and Pitanga. Surinam cherry, despite its common name, is originally from Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil. In its native habitat, it is a tree up to 10 metres in height. In those parts of the United States where it can be grown, it is more commonly seen as a bush, often used for hedges. It is a subtropical plant and when established will tolerate down to -5° C. The fruit are small and prominently ribbed.  When ripe, the colour varies from orange-red to dark red. The darker fruits are said to have better flavour. The flavour is sweet and somewhat resinous. In Brazil, it is used to flavour candies, carbonated drinks and frozen desserts. Surinam cherry is easily grown from seed and plants begin bearing at an early age. However, many sources suggest that for better fruit, it is preferable to purchase grafted plants of known quality. It is tolerant of a range of soil types but performs best in neutral to slightly acid soils with moderate humidity and watering.

Probably the next most common Eugenia in the U.S. is Eugenia aggregata or Cherry of the Rio Grande. The name refers to Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil and this plant, like the one before, is a subtropical. It is a large shrub to 5 metres and when established, also hardy to -5° C. Opinions on the quality of the fruit vary but it is a popular fruit in Brazil for making jelly, jam or juice. The fruit is sweet and dark red when ripe. This plant prefers slightly acid soils and even moisture, being easily damaged if allowed to dry out. Plants are said to begin fruiting at about 5 years of age. It is an attractive plant, whether fruiting or not.

Eugenia brasiliense or grumichama is a tree to 20 metres native to the Atlantic coast of Brazil. It comes in three varieties according to fruit colour, yellow, red and dark vermillion. Fruit are sweet and largely consumed fresh, being produced in great abundance from about 4-5 years of age. Fruit drop can be a problem. The tree is very ornamental and established plants will tolerate temperatures down to about -3° C. It has one of the shortest maturation periods for fruit known, going from flower to ripe fruit in 30 days.

Eugenia luschnathiana (syn. E. dombeyi) or Pitomba is also native to Brazil and when fully grown, a tree 8 metres in height. The fruit are somewhat larger than the preceding three species, orange at maturity and about 2-3.5 cm in diametre. It may be eaten out of hand but in Brazil, is more often made into preserves or juices. This plant does not tolerate freezing temperatures but has the redeeming characteristic of fruiting when still small, suggesting utility as a container plant in warm temperate climates. Seeds are slow to germinate and appreciate high humidity at germination. Mature plants will accept lower humidities but fruiting may be impaired if humidities are too low.

The species that follow are not well known outside of their native regions but are of sufficient quality to be worthy of wider cultivation. Most are native to Brazil with a couple of exceptions.

Eugenia stipitata is mentioned in Julia Morton’s Fruits of Warm Climates as a promising fruit. It is native to the Amazonian region of Brazil and Peru and is highly regarded by local inhabitants. It is cultivated in

Peru to a limited extent with the fruit processed to pulp and exported. There are two subspecies. Eugenia stipitata stipitata is a large tree, abundant in the western Amazon basin, heavily utilized by local residents. Eugenia stipitata soraria is a large shrub or small tree and is the variety cultivated for fruit because of its more manageable size. One major reason for the interest in this plant as a fruit crop is that the fruit are much larger than most Eugenias. Fruit on cultivated plants have been known to weigh up to a pound. Because of its tropical origins, this plant would most likely be suitable for cultivation only in South Florida or Hawaii.

Eugenia pyriformis, known in Brazil as uvaia, is from São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul. Uvaia is a tree to about 10 metres. As the species name suggests, the fruit is somewhat pear shaped, turning yellow to orange when ripe. Fruit are 3-4 cm. in diametre. It is frequently cultivated in Brazil in home orchards, with the fruit being utilized for sweets.

Eugenia leitonii, is known as araça-piranga or goiabão and is another Brazilian species. It is a tree to 8-14 metres and is found from the south of Bahia state to Paraná in the south. It is apparently a slow grower and appreciates humidity. The fruit is yellow when ripe and sweet but only a thin layer of flesh covers the single large seed.

Eugenia tomentosa or cabeludo is a shrub from the Amazonian region. It grows to 2-3 metres in height. The fruit are 3 cm. in diametre and yellow when ripe. It is utilized by local inhabitants and has seen some cultivation. As its origins imply, it would need humidity and warmth to prosper, making it another species best suited for southern Florida and Hawaii.

Eugenia candolleana is another species with edible fruit from Brazil that I have in cultivation. As the image shows, the fruit is purple when ripe and very edible (personal communication Luis Bacher). Beyond this, I have no information on habit, origin or cultivation.

Three other species I have growing and for which I have little information are Eugenia reinwardtii or Cedar Bay Cherry, Eugenia subterminalis or mulchi and Eugenia victoriana or guayabilla. Eugenia reinwardtii is an exception to the general rule that Eugenias are western hemisphere plants. This plant is found growing in Australia and Southeast Asia, often, as the common name implies, near the seashore. The remaining two species are from Ecuador, a center for tropical diversity in South America. Both bear edible fruit. My plants are still seedlings. Eugenia subterminalis seems to be a vigorous plant, tolerating my hot dry conditions with no signs of ill effects. Eugenia victoriana, on the other hand, has been set back by our winter and is struggling with the low humidity here.

Most Eugenias are from tropical and subtropical areas. They appreciate warmth, humidity and even soil moisture, neutral to acid soils are preferable but they seem to handle some alkalinity here in Tucson. Propagation for most species is from seeds. Some seeds germinate rapidly but others may take many months to appear. Seedlings, especially of the tropical species, are susceptible to thrips at emergence and tip blight from low humidity. While I found no reference to production of plants from cuttings, at least one reference felt it likely to be possible. Grafting of superior clones, at least in the instance of Surinam Cherry, is successfully employed.  I grow my plants in containers because in the ground here in Tucson they are susceptible to grubs, Texas root rot and chlorosis. This might not be a problem in other areas. The above ground parts are not bothered by insects. In humid climates, they will want full sun but in the desert, they do better with filtered light. Regular feeding with a balanced fertilizer is also appreciated. Growth rate is moderate and most species under good conditions can be expected to begin flowering by 5 years of age. If your fruit interest is in variety and like me, you cannot grow temperate zone berries due to climate, consider adding Eugenias to your home orchard. Plants and seeds are available from numerous sources and they are attractive as well as useful. I would be interested in hearing from others who have experience growing these interesting plants. Finally, I would especially like to thank my friend Luis Bacher in Limeira, São Paulo, Brazil for allowing me to use his photos and for the seeds he has sent me over the years of these and many other beautiful plants.  Ref:  1. Fruit of Warm Climates – Julia Morton. 1987   2. Frutas no Brasil – Silvestre Silva and Helena Tassara. 19963. Árvores Brasileiras – Manual de Identificação e Cultivo de Plantas Arbóreas Nativas do Brasil – Harri Lorenzi. 1992  and 4. All About Citrus & Subtropical Fruits – Ortho Books. 1985 

The author of this article Chris Marshall MD resides in Tucson, Arizona and grows arid-zone plants, including cacti & succulents.

Sheryl:  I met Chris when I was their guest speaker last year. His article included photos of the plants mentioned but space does not allow us to include them so check for them on the web or have a look at the Fruit Gardener Magazine in our library. He is looking for Brachychiton seed; particularly chillagoensis and paradoxum. Hybrids, as well as species would also be welcome. He’s willing to pay & has already collected:

acerifolius, acuminate, australis, bidwillii, discolour, diversifolia/populneus, gregorii, megaphyllus, rupestris.