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Sweetsop, or sugar apple, is a heart-shaped, tropical fruit of the Annona family that is raised in many places around the world. It has the knobby appearance and custard-like flesh of its cousin, the custard apple, but is typically sweeter. In fact, these two plants are so similar that in some areas people call both of them "custard apples." The sweetsop is generally 2 to 4 inches (about 5 to 10 cm) long, ranges in color from a yellowish green to a purple-tinged green, and has toxic black seeds.
People often eat this delicacy fresh and unprocessed, but it also is commonly prepared into various desserts and drinks. Cooks almost never heat it except when they make jellies and preserves. It often is served as the base for an iced beverage. Other serving suggestions include using the sweet flesh to make ice cream, sherbet, and malt-like drinks. Occasionally, wine makers ferment it into wine. To prepare sweetsop, a cook scoops out the flesh and presses it through a sieve to remove the poisonous seeds. Almost three-fourths of the fruit is inedible.
The sweetsop tree provides benefits beyond its fruit, and various cultures develop parts of the plant for medicinal purposes. Many extract leaf ingredients for digestive problems and dysentery. Numerous societies also incorporate the leaf derivatives into baths to ease rheumatic pain. Sometimes tonics are distilled from the bark and roots to treat diarrhea and dysentery. In some cultures, people use parts of the plant as wound salves as well.
Parts of the fruit also are used in the agriculture industry. Commercial manufacturers extract annonin, a natural insecticide, from its seeds for use in agricultural applications. Other members of the Annona plant family are typically beneficial for the same medicinal and pest control purposes.
Three trees are part of the Annona family: the sweetsop, A. squamosa; the custard apple, A. reticulate; and the soursop, A. muricata. The trees are approximately 10 to 25 feet (about 3 to 7.5 meters) tall and are nearly identical, although the leaves have slight differences. They grow only in a tropical or sub-tropical climate because below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), it sheds its leaves and yields very little, if any, crop. The tree requires plenty of water and typically produces best where the rainfall averages more than 27 inches (68.5 cm) per year. Normally, during a drought it will not produce fruit.
Botanists are uncertain where the sweetsop originated, but theories include South America, Central America, and even the West Indies. Growers in the western hemisphere cultivate this crop on various islands in the Caribbean, Mexico, and in some of South America. Generally, in the United States, growers raise it in California, Florida, and Hawaii. In the eastern hemisphere, growers raise the fruit in parts of Australia, India, southern China, and a number of tropical islands. Near the Mediterranean, they cultivate it in parts of Egypt, Palestine, and some areas of tropical Africa. Usually, grocers market it near areas where it is harvested because the fruit tends to have a short shelf life.