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    Freshly-Picked Lychee & Rambutans
    See Some Freshly-Picked Longan Fruits
    Canned Longans, Lychees and Rambutans
    An African Fruit Named After Captain Bligh 

This November issue of Noteworthy Plants is dedicated to a strange Far East fruit that was brought to the Life Sciences Department by a Far Out Palomar College colleague. Although probably not as strange in appearance (referring here to the fruit--not the colleague) as the remarkable "water caltrop" featured in the October 1995 issue of Noteworthy Plants, it is nonetheless very unusual, especially the slimy edible part that superficially resembles an eyeball preserved in formalin. The fruits are roughly the size and shape of "jumbo" olives, about one inch (2.5 cm) long, with a thin, leathery outer covering. The outer skin peels easily, exposing a translucent, slimy ball containing a large, shiny black seed. It is this juicy, slimy mass surrounding the seed (referred to by some authors as an aril) that is slightly sweet and edible. The fruits, which hang in grape-like clusters, are yellowish-red to brown at maturity. The fruits are often canned in a thick, sugary syrup and sold in Oriental Markets. They are not commonly found on dinner tables in the United States, at least compared with peaches, pears, plums, and other soft, fleshy fruits.

Fruits of the longan (Euphoria longana). One fruit has been peeled to reveal the fleshy, edible mass inside (lower right). Within the slimy, pulpy mass is a single, shiny black seed.

Dried longans (Euphoria longana). The fruits from this package were stuck together like a mass of raisins.

The crack WAYNE'S WORD staff of hippos has identified this fruit as the "longan" (also called "lungan" and "longyen"). The fruit comes from a tree indigenous to India, Burma and Ceylon, and cultivated extensively in southern China and the Malay Archipelago. The longan tree (Euphoria longana, syn. Dimocarpus longan) is a member of the unusual and diverse Soapberry Family (Sapindaceae). This species was once placed in the genus Nephelium, along with its close cousins the litchi or lychee (N. litchi, syn. Litchi chinensis) and the rambutan (N. lappaceum). According to Cornucopia: A Source Book of Edible Plants by Steven Facciola (1990), longan fruits are eaten raw, dried, preserved (canned) in syrup, cooked in sweet and sour dishes, and made into a liqueur. The black, smoke-dried fruits are also used in slow-cooked soups and are made into a refreshing beverage. There are several popular cultivars, some of which are better for canning. In the Orient longans are highly esteemed, but are apparently inferior to the lychee and generally do not appeal to the American taste, particularly when they are canned. They are also reputed to possess medicinal qualities.

Canned Asian fruits of the Soapberry Family from Taiwan and Thailand: Left: Longans (Euphoria longana); center: lychees (Litchi chinensis); right: rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum). Lychee fruits are reddish and covered with small warts, while rambutans are covered with soft, curved spines.

Fruits of the lychee (Litchi chinensis). One fruit has been peeled to reveal the fleshy, edible mass inside (lower left). Within the slimy, pulpy mass is a single, shiny black seed.

Fruits of the rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) are similar to lychee, except they are covered with soft, curved spines. The lower fruits have been peeled to reveal the fleshy, edible mass inside. Within the slimy, pulpy mass is a single hard seed.

Although very similar structurally, the walnut-sized "lychee" fruit is larger and is covered with warty protuberances. It is often called "Chinese plum" and has been cultivated in the Far East for countless centuries. The closely-related Asian fruit called "rambutan" is covered with soft, curved spines. Another interesting fruit in the Soapberry Family is "akee" (Blighia sapida). The mature akee fruit (technically a 3-valved capsule) splits into three reddish-orange sections which enclose the shiny black seeds, each with a fleshy, whitish structure at its base called an aril. The delicately flavored aril is very popular in Jamaica, where it is traditionally eaten sauteéd with butter and codfish. This aril is the only edible part; however, and in the Caribbean, unripe and overripe (fallen) arils are considered poisonous. The fruit is ready to eat only when it has turned red and split open. Eating the arils at the wrong stage of develpment may cause serious poisoning. The akee is native to tropical West Africa and was brought to the Caribbean during the slave trade, and may well have been carried by Captain Bligh himself on board the infamous HMS Bounty in 1787.

Two akee fruits high in the branches of an akee tree (Blighia sapida). At maturity, each fruit capsule splits into three, reddish-orange sections, each containing a shiny black seed.

Other interesting New World members of the Sapindaceae include guaraná (Paullinia cupana) and soapberry (Sapindus saponaria). Guaraná (the cola of Brazil) is a high-caffeine beverage made from the seeds of a trailing shrub or vine native to central Brazil. The drink contains more caffeine than coffee or tea, and a single cup is reputed to be sufficiently stimulating to counteract feelings of fatigue. The powdered seeds are also available in tablet form. If you suffer from insomnia, never drink a bottle of guaraná or take guaraná tablets at bedtime.

Guaraná beverage and "stay awake" tablets.

The soapberry tree is native to southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, extending south through Mexico, Central and South America. The leathery brown berries are rich in saponins, glycosides containing glucose or a related sugar plus a toxic triterpenoid component. They have the property of foaming with water and have been used as soap in Mexico and tropical America. In addition, saponins are especially toxic to cold-blooded vertebrates, and crushed soapberry fruits were thrown into ponds and streams to stupefy the fish so that they would float to the surface to be gathered. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the fruits are the black, marble-like seeds. Known as "black pearls" throughout the American tropics, the shiny seeds are used extensively in necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

The shiny black seeds, leathery one-seeded fruits and mature leaf of the soapberry tree (Sapindus saponaria). The hard seeds are known as "black pearls" and are strung into bracelets and necklaces in Central America.

See Article About Soap Lilies In California

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