BOOK REVIEW:

AMAZON RIVER FRUITS: FLAVOURS FOR CONSERVATION

N. Smith, R. Vasquez & W.H. Wust (2007), Missouri Botanical Gardens Press, 272pp

The western Amazon region, together with south east Asia, is the home of the most diverse and extensive range of edible tropical fruits in the world. Some of the plants found there are already being cultivated and harvested on a large scale, while others may only be used regionally or hardly at all. Many of those that are currently under-utilized present unique opportunities, awaiting transport solutions or detailed evaluation and development studies which could then lead on to wider consumption and/or commercial operations. This book focuses on plants found in the largest protected area in the western Amazon, namely the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve in Peru which was established in 1982 and covers an area of 25000 square km. Information is given on 107 exotic species and for each, there are usually a number of beautiful full gloss colour photos of fruit and trees. The photography is so well done you could treasure the book solely for that reason alone.

To illustrate the range of fruit trees covered, the following lists some of those that have been distributed elsewhere and you could be familiar with or even have tasted:

  1. Ice cream bean, Inga edulis. A species with long thin pods sometimes more than 1m long, with white edible flesh. Another 11 species are mentioned from the more than 300 in the genus. These others are also pod fruits but they come in a range of shapes and sizes.
  2. Bacuri, achachairu, Garcinia laterifolia (brasiliensis). This plant has recently been introduced into Australia, with a large orchard in north Queensland doing the hard work of obtaining the necessary Peruvian and Australian approvals for import and commercial operations. G. madrono is also listed along with two others.
  3. Abiu, Pouteria caimito. This plant can grow very well in sub-tropical or tropical areas of Australia with minimal pest or disease problems, and the fruit is delicious. Two other more unusual species are included.
  4. Biriba, Rollinia mucosa. In the same family as custard apples and with the same spiky appearance, but has yellow skin when ripe, not green. Soursop, Annona muricata, and one other Annona are also described.
  5. Giant granadilla, Passiflora quadrangularis plus three other species.
  6. Camu camu, Plinia dubia, (Myrciaria paraensis). Renowned for its vitamin C content averaging 50 times that of oranges.
  7. Peanut butter fruit, Bunchosia armeniaca.
  8. Cacao, Theobroma cacao.
  9. Jamaica cherry, Muntingia calabura.
  10. Cocona, Solanum sessiliflorum.

Most of the others are less well known outside their local habitat, let alone in the developed countries of the world. The majority may only be found in the wild, and as they’ve not benefited from any serious selection processes or more systematic breeding programs, their attributes are currently still only in their native primeval state. The following four species, with comments from the book entries, are examples the Authors feel have good prospects.

  1. Sachamangua, Grias neuberthii. Ideal candidate for further development – it is nutritious, has a long cropping season and fruit travel well. A member of the brazil nut family, grows to about 20m outside forest areas and has fruit 10-18cm long x 5-10cm wide with pulp that has an almond-like flavour.
  2. South American sapote, Matisia cordata. One of the more promising species. A large tree, 20m in cultivation that can produce up to 1000 globular fruits with a thick skin and deep orange pulp that tastes like mango and can weigh 150- 1000g each. One of the most productive plants in the Reserve area.
  3. Buriti palm, Mauritia flexuosa. Most important wild fruit and the tallest palm in the Peruvian Amazon. Famous for its vitamin A content being three times that of carrots. Mature plants can produce several thousand fruit, 4-7cm long X 3-6cm wide.
  4. Sacha cacao, Herrania nitida. Sweet and tangy pulp that could become a chocolate substitute.

The enticing photos of fruit for several of these relative unknowns, with locals obviously enjoying eating them, gets you wishing you could join in the party too. There’s not much detail on the botany and horticultural aspects of any of the plants as so many are only found in the wild and very little has been studied. Even with others that are actively cultivated, the scientific knowledge base is minimal. But aside from all this, the focus of the book is not on cultural detail anyway, but more to raise awareness of these little-known exotics in the outside world so they might be thoroughly evaluated. One of the interesting phenomena totally foreign to us here in the south west of WA is that when the Amazon floods each year, the whole area becomes one vast floodplain and these plants can be several metres under water for months at a time. Plants growing in such regions are obviously a long way from most of our species that don’t fare too well with wet feet for only a matter of days, and certainly not submerged almost to the canopy. With those species that are cropping during this seasonal flooding, the locals harvest their fruit by paddling round the trees in canoes – a water borne cherry picker equivalent!

Nigel Smith is a Professor of Geography at the University of Florida, USA who has a special interest in plants of the Amazon region and their use by indigenous peoples. Rodolfo Vasquez is a Peruvian forester and assistant curator of the Missouri Botanical Gardens and program director in Peru. Walter Wust is a forester, journalist, editor, professional photographer and environmentalist.

Barry Madsen

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