Originating in tropical West Africa, the Ackee tree is cultivated for its fruit which are cooked and eaten as a vegetable. It is now widely, though sparingly distributed outside of its native range, except on the island of Jamaica where its extensive cultivation has caused it to become naturalised.
Under favourable conditions, the tree may reach heights of up to 25 m (80 ft), though is more commonly 10 to 15 m (30 to 50 ft) tall with a straight, stout trunk supporting a densely branched rounded crown. The bark is pale grey and smooth.
The leaves are large and feather-like, being made up of glossy green oval leaflets, each 12 to 20 cm (6 to 8 in) long and arranged in pairs. A typical leaf is made up of three to five pairs of leaflets and their dense arrangement casts a deep shade. They remain on the tree in all seasons.
The flowers are small and insignificant, cream-coloured, either bi-sexual or male and are held in branched clusters that hang from the ends of the branches, though are partly obscured by the leaves. They come into bloom at the start of the rainy season in seasonally dry areas but bloom on and off throughout the year in areas where the dry season is short or where humid conditions prevail.
The flowers are followed by light green, bell-shaped fruit that turn bright red when mature. The fruit have a thick fibrous shell that splits at the base when fully mature, separating into three segments, each shielding a soft, pale yellow aril with a glossy black seed attached.
There are two named varieties in cultivation, 'Butter' with a soft, bright yellow aril and 'Cheese' with a somewhat firmer, cream-coloured aril. All parts of the fruit are poisonous, yet the arils are eaten in some countries, particularly in Jamaica where it has been adopted as the national fruit.
After removing and discarding the seed, the arils are carefully cleaned, leaving only the soft yellow or cream-coloured flesh which is then gently simmered, usually in lightly salted water. At the end of the simmering process, the water is drained off and discarded as a precaution. The drained and softened arils are then sautéed gently, usually with herbs and spices to season. In Jamaica, flakes of salt-preserved cod fish are added with the seasoning to make that country's most esteemed dish, 'Ackee and Saltfish.' When cooked they have a soft, buttery avocado-like texture and an agreeable, slightly nutty flavour.
Trees in South Florida yield from fifty to two hundred fruit per season, depending on the growing conditions.
It produces a medium-weight wood, in the 600 to 650 kg per cubic meter (37 to 41 lbs per cubic ft) range, reportedly with good natural resistance to rot, decay and wood-boring insects, though this is not well researched. The heartwood is light gold- to orange-brown.
Logs, when available are sawn into planks mostly for making furniture or into beams for railway sleepers. However, the tree is not usually felled in areas where the fruit is eaten and has economic importance. The branchwood is cut for firewood and for making charcoal.
Honeybees are observed vigorously working the flowers, but there does not appear to be much reliable information published on its value to bee forage and honey production.
The cooked arils contain high levels of Vitamins A, B1 (Thiamine), B2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin) and C (Ascorbic acid), as well as high levels of Oleic acid, an Omega-9 fatty acid that helps to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
Grows and fruits naturally in sub-humid to humid subtropical and tropical lowland to mid-elevation climates, generally in frost-free areas with annual lows of 18 to 25 °C, annual highs of 27 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 800 to 3500 mm and a dry season of 2 to 7 months.
New plants are started from seed or cuttings and perform best on free-draining clay, loam and sand soils of a moderately acid to slightly alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5.5 to 7.5, and on sites with full sun exposure. Seedlings plants start to flower and bear fruit when around three years old but are not true-to-type, so cuttings are preferred when selected varieties are to be cultivated.
Although it also grows well on alkaline soils, with a pH of 8.0 or more, fruit production is significantly reduced. It has poor tolerance to slow-draining or permanently waterlogged soils.
The fruit is poisonous if improperly harvested and prepared, containing the potentially deadly peptide hypoglycin. Only fruit that are on the tree and that have opened naturally, showing their arils, should be harvested. Unripe, unopened fruit or fruit that have opened and fallen to the ground are considered a poison risk and are not to be consumed.
The seed germinate readily but because of their relatively large size would need large animals or rodents to disperse them. It has naturalised in Jamaica, although this is due to its extensive cultivation in that country. In Australia, it is recorded as having escaped cultivation and as a weed of the environment in some areas, but there does not appear to be any record of it being a serious weed anywhere in the world.
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