Pepino de Árbol

The remarkable thing about the nine-inch-long (23cm) pods on the tree in the picture below is that, instead of dangling from branches, they grow right off the tree's trunk, like cacao fruits. The Maya call the tree Kat-but in English it's known by the wonderful name Cow Okra. It's Parmentiera aculeata, a member of the Bignonia Family, along with North America's Trumpet Creeper and Catalpas. The leaves are compound 3- or 5-foliate, with a short, stiff spine at the base of each petiole.


Cow Okra is native to southern Mexico, including the Yucatan, and Central America. Traditionally the Maya made an infusion from its roots to control diabetes. In fact, I've read in a scientific paper that chloroform extracts from Cow Okra reduce blood glucose levels in diabetic mice by 44%, and 30% in normal mice. The Aztecs of central Mexico were known to use the plant for kidney diseases, indigestion, colds, and ear infections. Supposedly each day they drank tea made from 1.8 oz (50g) of leaves in one quart (liter) of water. For ear infections they soaked a cotton ball in this mixture and inserted it into the ear.

The raw fruits can be eaten, though they're not particularly good tasting; some Maya sprinkle sugar on them. Cow Okra pod rinds are too tough and fibrous to bite through, but the flesh inside the fruits has the texture of cucumbers, and is filled with many small seeds that are easy enough to ignore and swallow. Some Maya roast the pods, covering them with ashes and embers, and this improves the taste markedly. As the fruits bake they soften, sweeten, and get juicier. I've baked them in a solar oven and loved how as they baked they issued a rich, molasses aroma. To me the gummy flesh tastes like campfire-baked plantains (the really big bananas), though others say it's more like sweet potatoes. The pods I baked in the solar oven turned out so sweet and gooey that I was accused of packing them in brown sugar, or piloncillo. They were delicious, but fibrous; I had to pick fibers from my teeth for hours afterwards.