The Low Hanging Fruit:
Canistel: One Sapote to Rule Them All!
By Adam Williams
The Canistel, also sometimes called the Yellow Sapote, is probably the showiest member of its family, Sapotaceae. I’ll be honest, this has never been my favorite tropical fruit, but it has always intrigued me, and is certainly deserving of more attention, in the back yard and commercially. I say it’s not my favorite because I love the concept of a perfect, delicious fruit to be eaten fresh out of hand (mostly because I am not fond of cooking). Although many would consider its ripe flesh quite delectable, the Canistel really shines with a little preparation, but more on that later. It is often fruiting in Hawaii during late Winter/early Spring (about now, hence my inspiration to write about it for this issue) and is more common than the average resident may be aware of. This time of year, look for fist-sized, oblong, shiny, bright yellowy-orange fruits contrasting with the thick, dark green foliage; they stand out like ornaments on a Christmas tree. It is a handsome tree, even out of season when its dense canopy of evergreen leaves may be confused for Mango by the casual observer.
Botanically known as Pouteria campechiana, this little-known gem hails from the Mesoamerica Hotspot, home to many of our common domesticated crop plants, and a lot of awesome tropical fruits. And I mean a LOT. The genus Pouteria alone contains numerous great fruits – so many I once contemplated the idea of writing an article specifically about the genus, but quickly realized I could never do the diversity of species within it (and its close relative) sufficient justice to express all their unique and wonderful attributes. Although the genus has representatives around the world’s tropics, all the great Pouteria fruits I’m familiar with are from Mesoamerica, including this one, and almost all of them have the word Sapote (Zapote) as part of their common name. Mamey Sapote, Chico Sapote or Sapodilla, and Yellow Sapote. Sapote is an indigenous word (Nahuatl, language of the Mexica aka Aztec, and others) meaning soft, edible fruit, so not the most specific term, but it is also the basionym for the name of the entire family into which all these fruits are placed, Sapotaceae. But yet other, unrelated fruits native to the same region, but botanically placed under entirely different families, are also called Sapote: Black Sapote (Ebenaceae), White Sapote (Rutaceae), and the South American Sapote (Malvaceae). For this reason I find using the word Sapote to be kind of misleading, because there is so much diversity among all the fruits onto which that name has been hung.
What does Canistel mean? I have no idea, which is kinda why I like the name, its not loaded with any preconceptions or false comparisons to other fruits. Plus it’s the name the fruit was introduced to me as, and you know what they say about first impressions. But if you’ve read any of my previous articles you’ll know I’m big on botanical names, and for those readers who have any familiarity with Mexican geography, you might recognize the species name of this fruit tree, campechiana, as in Campeche, one of three states in the United Mexican States which comprise the Yucatan Peninsula. Yes, the Canistel is native to Southern Mexico (as well as Guatemala, Belize, and El Salvador) and likely has been cultivated by indigenous people across Mesoamerica for thousands of years. It is still a popular home garden tree throughout its native range, but has also been spread far and wide, including into South America, throughout the Caribbean, all the way over to the Philippines (by the Spanish colonizers), and from there to Hawaii.
Remember what I said about it being more common than many may realize in Hawaii? Well its true that you won’t see what you’re not looking for, but if you can spot Malunggay (Moringa oleifera) growing in the yards around your neighborhood, there’s a good chance some of those yards have a Canistel tree in them too! Right along side the Bayabas (Psidium guajava), Atis (Annona squamosa) and Guyabano (Annona muricata). And if you didn’t follow that string of fruit tree names (or have no idea what they look like), I’m describing a few of the fruit trees that are most commonly found in the yards of local Filipinos, probably the first people to introduce seedlings of the Canistel fruit to Hawaii back in the early plantation days. Filipinos call it Chesa, or Tiesa. “I remember eating Chesa when I was little, and it was one of the most common fruits we ate, especially in the province,” says Kauai resident Maria Belardo, who grew up in the Philippines. “Now I see it in the yards of many Filipinos here in Hawaii, along with a lot of the other fruits I grew up eating.”
If the Canistel fruit has been in Hawaii all this time, and is already an occasional backyard tree (among Filipinos, at least), then why is it not more popular and well known? “Some find it too different for the average North American palette,” says Steve Starnes, owner of Hawaiian Tropical Fruit Nursery and rare fruit grower in the Hilo area, although he admits that he likes it. He continues, “I’ve grown it from seed, but the seedlings take a long time to fruit, and the quality can be really variable, sometimes quite dry. Better ones are creamy and sweet.” Another name for the Canistel, which I have thus far delayed mentioning is Egg Fruit. I don’t like the name; I think it sounds gross, and I’ve never been a fan of hard-boiled eggs either. But it is true that the flesh of Pouteria campechiana has been likened to the texture and, with its bright yellowy orange color, the appearance of a hard-boiled egg yolk. But not all Canistel are created equal, and while some may be dry and akin to an egg, superior selections are indeed sweeter with a creamy texture. Just like most other fruits, what variety you’re sampling can make a huge difference. Most of the backyard trees in Hawaii are seedlings, again similar to a lot of other fruits (Mangos, Avocado, Mountain Apple, etc.), and when it comes to fruit trees, planting from seed is kinda like gambling: you never know how it will turn out. Canistel trees will not come true from seed, so to be sure what you’re getting it is important to propagate asexually, usually by grafting a selected variety.
Canistel trees are highly adaptable and, as long as they are planted in full sun, can thrive in a wide variety of different soil types. They grow well in dry areas as well as wet (but no standing water or constantly waterlogged soil, please) and tolerate strong winds without issue. A dense-canopied evergreen tree, Canistel can exceed twenty-five feet in height under favorable conditions, but are easily kept pruned to a more manageable size while still achieving a large harvest. Good varieties bear heavily and consistently, and in Hawaii major crops appear in late Winter/early Spring, with lighter harvests periodically throughout the year. The fruit, which can vary in shape from long and spindle-shaped to round, starts green and matures to a vibrant golden yellow to bright orange, depending on the variety. Similar to fruits like Avocado or Papaya, the fruit should be picked when mature, but before it has fully ripened. Mature fruits will be brightly colored, shiny and hard. After storing at room temperature for three to ten days, the skin will become dull and the fruit will soften. “If the fruit is a little soft, the texture is more egg-like; but if you wait for it to get softer it gets sweeter and more like a sweet potato,” says Lynn Tsuruda of Frankie’s Nursery on O‘ahu. “One thing is, you have to like sweet potato to like this fruit. Some people that don’t like sweet potato may not like it because of the similarity.” But just like sweet potato or pumpkins, the Canistel is an excellent option for many types of baked goods, and is reported to mix well with milk products, making it a great option for smoothies, milk shakes, or ice creams. And unlike a lot of other fruits, Canistel flesh holds its brilliant color when cooked, blended or frozen, lending itself to just about any processing application one can imagine. The cleaned flesh or even the whole fruits can stay bright orange and ready to use even when frozen for six months, and possibly longer. Plus it’s chock full of antioxidants and vitamins such as calcium, phosphorous, niacin, and carotene, among many others.
“The fruit was popular among early fruit fanatics but not by many others,” says Ken Love, President of the Hawai‘i Tropical Fruit Growers. “Today the fruit is making a comeback because of high vitamins and natural sweetness for smoothies.” Over at Frankie’s Nursery, which is also a rare fruit orchard, Lynn Tsuruda agrees. “At one time we had a very hard time selling Canistel, except to Filipinos who already knew it, but it’s very popular now. Many customers make smoothies, or use it for pies like a pumpkin. Though some people do buy it just to eat fresh,” she added. Considering all of the Canistel’s desirable traits, its favorable processing characteristics, and excellent nutrient profile, I am excited for this fruit’s potential in Hawaii and happy to see it making an appearance in more and more venues. Be sure to keep an eye out for it in your local natural foods markets, farm-to-table restaurants, farmer’s markets, and roadside stands across the state. If you’re considering acquiring a tree for your yard or business, remember to look for grafted varieties. For more information on O‘ahu contact Frankie’s Nursery in Waimanalo at (808)-259-8737, and on the Garden Isle you can call Kaua‘i Nursery and Landscaping at (808)-245-7747.
Adam M. Williams is an avid gardener, native plant advocate, and tropical fruit enthusiast.
Further reading and references:
Ledsema, Noris. “Growing Canistel (Pouteria campechiana)”. Fairchildbotanicalgarden.org. 14 Feb. 2014.
Morton, J. 1987. Canistel. p. 402–405. In: Fruits of warm climates. Julia F. Morton, Miami, FL.
Watson, George (April 1938). “Nahuatl Words in American English”. American Speech 13 (2): 113–114.