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The acerola cherry is the fruit of the acerola tree. Also known as Barbados cherries and West Indian cherries, the ripe fruits are bright red with thin skins. Acerola cherries are somewhat round and similar in size and shape to standard cherries but with three lobes. They have a sweet taste with a slight tartness. The fruit is valued for both its distinctive taste and its high vitamin C content.
Acerola trees, or Malpighia emarginata, are deciduous plants that grow in warm tropical and subtropical environments. They are native to areas of North, Central, and South America. The trees are also cultivated throughout the world in areas with suitable environments. They require year-round warm temperatures as they are not tolerant of cold and can suffer severe dieback when exposed to freezing temperatures.
Standard acerola trees grow into a bush shape up to 15 feet (4.57 meters) tall. Dwarf varieties mature at a much shorter height. Flowers develop throughout the year, appearing most often after periods of heavy rainfall. Once a flower develops, it must be pollinated in order to produce an acerola cherry. The fruit matures within 25 days after pollination.
Freshly picked acerola cherries do not have much of a shelf life and are rarely grown for market. The acerola cherry tends to ferment, mold, or deteriorate within three to five days after picking. It is best eaten or processed as soon as possible after harvest. Processing methods, such as canning, preserve the cherries so they can be enjoyed at a later time. The fruit is often made into jams, jellies, or chutneys.
Brazil has the largest commercial plantings of acerola trees. Much of the commercial growing of acerola cherries is for the nutritional supplement market. These small fruits contain a surprising amount of nutrients — along with potassium and magnesium, each acerola cherry can provide the daily vitamin C requirement. When processed commercially, up to 4,000 milligrams of vitamin C can be extracted from 100 grams of the cherries. A green acerola cherry contains double the vitamin C as a ripe one.
The high nutritional content of these cherries makes them a popular offering at health food stores. These stores often carry a powder made from dried, ground cherries. The powder can be eaten alone or sprinkled on other foods. Dried bits of the cherries are sometimes combined with tea leaves to both enhance the flavor of the tea and increase its nutritional value.