Trouble-Free Sapodilla: A Handsome Addition to the Southwest Florida LandscapeJan 27, 2022 01:00PM ● By ERIK ENTWISTLE
If you have room for a handsome, exotic fruiting tree in your landscape that grows nearly trouble-free in Southwest Florida, consider planting a sapodilla (Manilkara zapota). This tree is native to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean but is now cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world, including our own.
The evergreen tree makes an excellent landscape specimen, is beautiful to look at, is wind resistant, does not require a lot of maintenance, and fruits easily with few pests or diseases to threaten it. The tree can even be maintained at a smaller size for easier harvesting, to save space, and to reduce the likelihood of toppling in a hurricane.
A sapodilla fruit looks nearly identical to its larger relative, the mamey sapote, with both belonging to the Sapotaceae family. The two should not be confused, however, as they are not at all similar in taste or texture. The mamey sapote resembles a sweet potato or pumpkin in taste and texture, while the sapodilla is redolent of a spiced, baked pear. You eat the fruit as you would a kiwi, slicing it in half and scooping out the flesh with a spoon, while making sure to discard the large black seeds.
Recently developed varieties of sapodilla have improved on the quality of the fruit, and the best ones have a smooth, nongritty texture and a notably sweet taste with notes of brown sugar and malt. We are growing two excellent varieties here on Sanibel, one each of Alano and Makok.
As the name implies, the sapodilla tree is a source of a sappy latex called chicle. If you score the bark of the tree or pick an unripe sapodilla fruit, the white, sticky chicle immediately starts flowing. As an interesting bit of trivia, chicle has been used to make chewing gum and was popular with the Aztecs and Maya. In modern times the Chiclets brand of gum is named after the chicle from which it is made.
Sapodillas are said to begin fruiting within six to seven years of planting, which sounds like a long wait. The varieties we planted, however, took only a couple of years to get established and begin producing.
Once production begins, the challenge is knowing when to harvest the fruit. With fruits of varying size being produced throughout the year, it can be difficult to tell when they are ready to pick, as they rarely fall from the tree on their own, and the tree can be covered with dozens of ripening fruits for months. The fruits won’t soften to the desired stage of edibility until several days after being picked (let them sit on the kitchen counter until ready), but if picked too soon won’t ripen properly.
As the fruits ripen on the tree, watch for the scaly, rough surface (scurf) of the fruit to become smoother, indicating readiness to harvest. Another sign of ripening is when the fruits stop increasing in size. Some trial and error is to be expected as you get to know the habits of this highly interesting fruiting tree.
Although quite a few amazing fruits can grow here in Southwest Florida, the sapodilla must rank as a top choice because of its easy care and absolutely delicious fruit—just don’t mind if the chicle oozes all over when you trim branches or harvest the fruit.
Pianist, instructor, and musicologist Erik Entwistle lives and teaches on Sanibel. He writes the Stay Tuned column for TOTI Media. A favorite hobby is growing vegetables and fruit using sustainable gardening methods.