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The Custard Apple Tree

The Custard apple is an interesting fruit especially when we consider the fact that the Custard apple tree is not actually an apple tree at all.

A Custard Apple cut into pieces in a bowl.
The Custard Apple.

Apples are members of the scientific family known as malus domestica. The custard apple is actually an annona squamosa. This means that they’re going to be a few important differences between this create and or standard apple tree. The Custard apple tree is from a more tropical climate and there are some important details to keep in mind when cooking this fruit.

Custard apples can be used in a wide range of delicious recipes and are prized by cultures all over the world. However, the seeds of this fruit are poisonous and care should be taken that one does not eat them.

Let’s go on a strange journey to discuss one of the most interesting fruits to bear the apple name. 

History of the Custard Apple Tree 

The Custard apple tree has an incredibly ancient lineage. There’s a good chance that the history of this tree goes back to before humans started writing down our own history. 

The Custard apple is native to the West Indies. However, this tree was likely transported to South America as it successfully grows throughout Peru and Brazil. This tree was also brought to the Bahamas and Southern Florida. Early Spanish Traders transported Custard apples from the West Indies and Philippines to China. There are even early European scientific studies of the custard apple that date back to the 1600s.

The Custard apple is gaining something of a second life in our modern age. As people search for new and exciting fruits, this unique plant has been jettisoned to the forefront of our culinary conversation. There are even new cultivars of the Custard apple that grow without, or containing very few, of their dangerous seeds.

You’ve probably even seen the cherimoya, a close cousin of the Custard apple, in specialty grocery stores or on your favorite cooking show.

A halved Cherimoya, the "cousin" of the Custard Apple.
Cherimoya, the “cousin” of the Custard Apple.

Now that you’ve had a crash course in the history of the Custard apple tree, let’s talk about this tree’s characteristics.

Custard Apple Tree Characteristics

The Custard apple tree is certainly going to be eye-catching in any yard. You’ll likely be the only person on the block, if not one of the few people in your state, that are growing this particular fruit tree.

Custard Apples growing on a Custard Apple Tree.
Custard Apples growing on tree.

The Custard apple tree typically grows to a maximum height of 12 feet, but can have a maximum spread of 20 feet. This creates a very visually interesting look especially when the tree is in bloom. The pale bronze flowers of this tree have a visual style that is just as unique as the fruit itself.

The fruit of this tree looks something like an apple with dragon scales. The unique segmented nature of the fruit also extends inward to its flesh. When the fruit ripens on the branch, the segments naturally begin to peel apart.

There is one big characteristic of this tree that you need to keep in mind. The seeds of this tree are very poisonous. Ingesting these seeds can quickly lead to illness and health problems. While the flesh of the fruit is perfectly safe for human consumption, care needs to be taken that you do not cook or eat the seeds.

Now, let’s talk about what it takes to grow one of the most unique trees available.  

Planting Zones 

Since the Custard apple is not technically an apple tree, we can expect that its planting zones will be very different from your everyday apple. This is a tropical tree typically grown in the Americas as well as in some Asian countries. As such, it has a much hotter climate requirement than members of the malus domestica family.

The Custard apple tree does best in USDA hardiness zones 10 through 11. These are very hot climates and not very many places in North America meet these temperature requirements. There are several examples of these trees successfully growing in southern states like Florida, South Carolina, and Southern California.

Size and Spacing

Spacing the Custard apple tree can be a little bit tricky. These trees have the ability to grow up to twenty feet In terms of their spread. This means that they can easily crowd out other plants if they are grown too close to their neighbors.

If you plan on growing a Custard apple in your yard, you should plan ahead and give this tree plenty of breathing room. 

Pollination

The Custard apple tree is a unique case when it comes to pollination.

The Custard apple is technically self-pollinating. You only need one of these trees in order for them to bear fruit in the coming season. However, they do better in the presence of pollinators. In their native habitats, the Custard apple is pollinated by a specific type of beetle that favors this tree. 

Custard Apple Tree Care

If you’re ready to take on the challenge of growing your own Custard apple tree, you’re going to need to know how to take care of it. These trees are not known to be particularly challenging to grow, but they are uncommon in North America. This means that you might come up against unique circumstances that other people who have attempted to grow this tree have not yet faced. 

Sunlight

Just like members of the malus domestica family, the Custard apple tree requires full sunlight. This should be no surprise considering that this tree is at home in tropical climates. You’re going to want to plant this tree in an area of your yard that has at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight everyday.

With that said, this tree can withstand partial shade. 

Watering

The Custard apple tree is only mildly drought-tolerant. This tree requires 700 mm of annual rainfall a year in order to stay healthy. If this tree experiences a considerable drought, it can bear fruit inconsistently for a season or two. 

Pruning 

Pruning the Custard apple tree is a bit more intensive than pruning your standard malus domestica. Custard apples are very heavy fruit and can weigh down the branches of this tree. You want to trim back the branches to establish strength during the tree’s dormant period. This operation can be a little intense if it involves removing up to two-thirds of the growth from the previous year. 

Diseases & Care 

This is a tree that is native to tropical climates and comes with its own unique disease risks. Black canker, leaf spot, and certain nematodes on young to be considerable problems before the custard apple tree.

Pests 

There are a variety of pests that can deal serious damage to this tree. You’ll want to keep an eye out for all of the standard culprits such as aphids and beetles. This tree is also a common target for chalcid flies

Common Uses For The Custard Apple Tree 

Despite its uncommon appearance and poisonous seeds, the Custard apple tree is known to be one of the most delicious fruits the world over. There are a variety of ways that you can prepare the fruit of this tree including eating it raw.

What Does The Custard Apple Taste Like?

There’s no surprises when it comes to the flavor of the Custard apple. It’s name gives everything away. The flesh of this fruit tastes exactly like custard. The flavor gets sweeter as the custard apple ripens.

Cooking

Cooking with the Custard apple is a little bit of an uncharted territory. There are plenty of traditional recipes that you can draw from and cultures all over the world for how to prepare these apples. However, if you’re looking for something a little bit closer to home you’re going to have to be willing to do some experimenting. 

Eating Raw

Yes, you can eat the Custard apple raw. However, you should keep in mind that the skin and seeds of this fruit are completely inedible. Wait until the fruit begins to ripen, cut it open, and scoop out the flesh using a spoon in order to eat this fruit raw.

Canning / Freezing / Drying

Canned custard apples are a common sight throughout the world. You can even try your hand at canning these fruits yourself.

The Custard apple is also a great choice for freezing. There is something that you should keep in mind if you’re looking to freeze the Custard apple. You need to puree the fruit of the Custard apple tree before you can freeze it. If you try to freeze the fruit whole or sliced, it will begin to dissolve when it’s thawed and lose most of its flavor.

Just as a reminder, the skin and seeds of this fruit are inedible and should not be preserved along with the rest of the fruit. 

Recipes Using the Interesting Custard Apple

Custard apples are very versatile and can be used in a wide range of recipes. This fruit can be used in ice creams, smoothies, as well as sodas.

If you’re looking to try a recipe that may be a little bit more familiar, you can always try to substitute standard apples for Custard apples in this recipe for apple crumble

Health Benefits of the Custard Apple Tree 

Don’t let the inedible skin and poisonous seeds fool you, the Custard apple is a great source of nutritional benefits. These samples are high in food energy and a great way to get your vitamin C. These fruits are also rich in iron and a great source of a variety of B vitamins. 

Where To Buy The Custard Apple Tree ?

If you’re looking to plant your very own Custard apple tree, you’re going to need to search online to buy one. This tree is still fairly uncommon in North America and that means many of the online retailers still do not stock this tree.

If you can’t find one for sale at your favorite online gardening shop, you can always try to ask about special ordering one. Most gardening shops are familiar with special ordering unique plants and supplies for their clients. 

Where To Buy Custard Apple Fruit 

The fruit of the Custard apple tree occasionally pops up in the stores throughout North America. It’s much more common to find the cherimoya, a close cousin of the Custard apple, than it is to find the Custard apple itself. If you get lucky and spot one, you should pick one up and give it a taste and enjoy that rare experience.

Custard Apples on shelves.
Custard Apples on shelves.

Short of finding one of these in your local store, you can always ask for a specialty produce shop to order them for you. Just like with gardening shops is special ordering less common merchandise for their customers, most produce departments are familiar with making special orders as well.

You can also take a trip to the canned goods aisle of your local Asian or South American grocery store to see if they have some canned Custard apple.

Wrapping up The Custard Apple Tree 

The Custard apple tree is a surprising fruit that is beginning to carve out a niche for itself in North America. While this fruit is not technically an apple as we commonly consider it today, common naming conventions often feature interesting turns of phrase.

If you’re looking for an “apple” that might change the way that you see fruit, give the Custard apple a try.