While curiosity may have killed the cat, the gardener has an equal curiosity that is hopefully tempered with intelligence and research. Such is the case of identifying (or misidentifying) things — like fruit — before tasting them. While a beautiful, fruit-like object growing on a tropical tree may be inviting to sample, if you do not know what it is and how to use it, please take a pause — it could save your life!
The fruit in question is the ackee, a tropical fruiting tree originally from west Africa. Over the centuries, the ackee tree has worked itself (with the help of mankind) into much of the Caribbean, Central and South America and even Florida. Perhaps the most famous use of ackee comes from Jamaica. Here ackee is carefully picked and made into the famous ackee and salt fish dish. Properly picked and prepared, it is a delicious dish which I have eaten many times. While fresh ackee is not imported, occasionally you find canned versions. Sometimes you will find it in a yard in our area planted by someone who knows about this fruit. On occasion, someone will buy a property with ackee already in the landscape and wonder what it is.
Growing over 30 feet in our area, ackee is a medium-sized tropical tree with pinnate 8-inch long leaves. The ackee will bloom up to three times per year resulting in a number of 3- to 4-inch leathery, almost pear-shaped, fruits. As the fruit matures, it turns red. Upon ripeness, the capsule-like fruit splits open and three good-sized seeds appear. These seeds are embedded in a fleshy, cream-colored pulp that might remind you of brains, thus the alternate name “vegetable brains.” This pulp is the part that is harvested. Now here comes the tricky, potentially life-threatening, part. If the fruit is picked too early and has not split open, it is extremely poisonous. If the fruit has been split open too long and the pulp is soft and discolored, it is extremely poisonous. It is only when the fruit has split open naturally and the flesh is firm that all is well. Warning: I do not want to take the chance, and I do not recommend you do. There are people who know what they are doing and that skill I will leave up to these experts. Again, properly harvested and prepared, ackee with the traditional saltfish is very delicious.
So, what is the moral of the story? UF/IFAS Extension does not recommend ackee as a home planting unless the owner is familiar with the fruit. Even then, there may be cases where children and adults accidentally pick and consume this fruit – this must be taken into consideration. Unripe or overripe ackee contains a highly toxic poison, so think safety first. For additional details, please check out our specific publication on ackee at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/HS/HS37800.pdf — Ackee Growing in the Florida Home Landscape.
Ackee when harvested and prepared by knowledgeable people is known and loved as the National Dish of Jamaica. Otherwise, practice common sense and minimize risk in your own yard. For more information about all types plants in your yard that could be toxic, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at 941-764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an extension volunteer. Don’t forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area. Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times — http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/charlotteco/files/2018/03/Plant-Clinics-Schedule.pdf.