Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the May 12, 2007 Newsletter issued from  Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO

If you ride down a road anyplace in this area two trees are more eye-catching than all others, both planted around people's homes: First, there's the awesomely crimson-blossomed Poinciana I told you about last week, and; second, there's a fruit tree with perfectly leafless branches very heavily loaded with oval, green, inch-long fruits. You can see a typical one of these below:


That's a close-up of three green fruits, which will turn yellow upon maturity, below:


Mexicans call the tree "Ciruelo," which translates to "plum," but the fruit is unlike what North Americans think of as a plum. In other parts of Latin America it goes by the name of Jocote. In English we call it Spanish Plum, Mombin, and other names. There's a species with both yellow- and red-fruited forms, Spondias purpurea, and there's another closely related species, Spondias mombin, which produces only yellow fruits. In Spondias purpurea flowers and fruits occur along the stem, while in Spondias mombin they're clustered at the end of the branch. Therefore, what we have above is the yellow-fruited form of Spondias purpurea. These are members of the Cashew Family, in which we also find mangos, sumacs and Poison Ivy. Spondias mombin is native from Mexico to northern South America but is planted worldwide in the tropics.

One reason the species is so popular is that its fruit can be eaten raw, used in preserves, made into jellies and, maybe most popular, used as the base for a sweet drink. I find its taste OK, but not to be compared with something like a fig or an apple. The trees ubiquity here may rest mainly on the fact that it doesn't need much care and thrives on marginal soils. One weakness is that it doesn't tolerate frosts.

Spanish Plum has been grown for so long that several horticultural varieties have emerged. The red-fruited form seems to receive top billing on the Internet, but the yellow-fruited one is much more common here. Also there are purple ones. Don Gonzalo says they taste pretty much the same.

You might enjoy reading the report of Allison Miller, a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, who traveled through Central America studying domesticated Spanish Plum populations. Allison found populations adapted for service in orchards, around people's homes, as living fences, cultivated in forests, as well as a few wild populations. Her interesting story, with pictures, is at http://www.mobot.org/MOBOT/Research/jocote/jocote.shtml.

from the June 22, 2007 Newsletter issued from  Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO

Jalpan's Spanish Plums are finally maturing and I'm eating my share. Last weekend as I hiked through a village in the valley below San Juan, Zoyapilca, I met two old women and a young man coming down the road, each carrying two buckets filled to their brims with Spanish Plums. On my walk to the market there's one place where the sidewalk is dangerously slick with squashed, fallen plums. Three plums are shown in my hand below:


Though Spanish Plums belong to an entirely different plant family from northern plums, you can see why they're called plums. They look and taste like northern plums, and similarly can be eaten raw and made into preserves. However, note the large, hard, white, blocky seed, which is very unlike the northern plum's lens- shaped pit. Spanish Plums belong to the mostly tropical Cashew Family, in which we find not only cashew and mango trees but also sumac, Poison Oak and Poison Ivy.

Here people call the fruit Ciruela, which means plum, and they always tell you that there are two kinds, a yellow one and a red one. So, this is the yellow-fruited form of SPONDIAS PURPUREA.

Nowadays the trees' pinnately compound, walnut-tree-like leaves have emerged and the plentiful yellow fruits set amidst fresh, emerald green leaves are very pretty. An infusion of the leaves, by the way, is effective in treating viral herpes infections, as reported at http://www.cravoecanela.com/Herpes_2.html.

from the April 24, 2011 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

In Pisté around quite a few homes nowadays one sees leafless or near-leafless, small trees bearing loads of spherical, green to red, plum-like fruits, as shown below:

Red Spanish-Plum, or Hog Plum, SPONDIAS PURPUREA

Some trees are issuing terminal sprouts bearing pinnately compound leaves like those of sumac, as seen below:

Red Spanish-Plum, or Hog Plum, SPONDIAS PURPUREA, leaves

The leaf similarity to sumac isn't incidental, because here we're dealing with the Red Spanish-Plum, or Hog Plum, SPONDIAS PURPUREA, a member of the Cashew Family, to which sumac also belongs. Also in that family we find mango, pistachio, and Poison Oak and Poison Ivy.

We've met Spanish Plums before, but the fruits we had then were yellow. In fact Spanish Plum fruits are very variable, ranging from purple, dark- or bright-red, orange, or yellow, to red-and-yellow. They vary from 1 to 2 inches in length (2.5-5 cm) and come in a variety of roundish shapes.

In Spanish most people call the tree Ciruelo, which is the regular word for "plum tree." (Ciruela, ending in "a" instead of "o," means "plum fruit.") Since our Northern plums are members of the Rose Family, the Yucatán's Red Spanish Plums clearly have very little to do with them -- except that the fruits at first glance are very similar. In the English-speaking world the name Mombin also is used -- Red Mombin for this one, Yellow Mombin for a similar species with yellow fruits.

Inside the Red Spanish Plum there's a stone much larger than that of a Northern plum, and consequently there's much less to eat. Here Red Spanish Plums are eaten raw, cooked into jelly, or mashed between the fingers and strained for a juice that makes a nice- tasting drink.

No matter how good they taste, however, there's always the problem of those big stones, and nowadays it seems a lot of people just don't have time for such arduous eating, especially young people. Also, the fruits are given to being infested with worms.

Medicinally the fruits have been considered as diuretic, and fruit extracts derived from boiling in water are used to bathe wounds and mouth sores. The bark, which contains much tannin, is astringent, and extracts made by boiling it in water are used against mange, ulcers, dysentery, and for bloating caused by intestinal gas in infants.

Red Spanish-Plum is native from southern Mexico through Central America into northern South America, but has been introduced into the Caribbean, the Philippines and parts of Africa, where in some places it's "gone wild," reproducing naturally and thus becoming an invasive species.