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Acerola is a plant native to Southern and Central America. It produces small edible fruits which strongly resemble cherries, leading to the common alternate names of Barbados Cherry, Puerto Rican Cherry, and West Indies Cherry. The fruits are widely consumed in South America in fresh and preserved forms. Products of the acerola tree have been adopted by consumers in other nations as well, and it is used as an ornamental shrub in the Southern regions of the United States.
The name comes from the Spanish, and is probably related to an Arabic word for a tree which looks similar. In South America, the plant is also known as Cereza and Semeruco. Botanical studies of acerola have suggested that it is probably native to the Yucatan. In some countries, especially Puerto Rico, acerola is greatly valued for its dietary benefits and distinctive flavor. Visitors to South and Central America may be offered acerola along with other tropical fruits, and the tart flavor pairs well with fruits like mangoes and papayas.
The scientific name for acerola is Malpighia glabra, with some botanists preferring to classify it as M. Emarginata. When allowed to grow, acerola can reach a height of almost 10 feet (three meters). It has a multitude of strong branches with simple evergreen leaves which culminate in a bushy crown. The five petaled pink to white flowers mature into small dark orange to red fruits. Acerola can also be trimmed into a more manageable hedge.
The acerola fruits are very high in ascorbic acid, better known as vitamin C. The acid makes them tart to sour, but also very healthy. Fresh fruits may be eaten plain or pressed into juice, and acerola fruits are also used to make jams and preserves. They also appear in desserts, usually liberally sweetened. In the United States, the trees only grow in the drier warmer regions in certain areas of the South, so most consumers are familiar with preserved, rather than fresh, acerola.
Selective breeding in the United States have yielded several varieties with a more sweet flavor, including Florida sweet and Manoa sweet. These varietals are grown for their fruits and also used ornamentally. In a region where fresh acerola is available, consumers should look for firm evenly colored specimens with no soft spots or slime. Like cherries, acerola fruits have pits, so caution is advised when eating them or preparing them for cooking.