Chico Sapote
(Manilkara zapota)

Chico zapote

Chico zapote flowers

Chico zapote

Chico zapote fruit

Chico zapote

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    Family: Sapotaceae Juss.
    Genus: Theobroma
    Country of Origin: Yucatan, southern Mexico
    Common Names: Chicle, Sapodilla, Nasberry, Sak-ya
    Parts Used: Fruit, Seed, Leaves, Sap, Bark

The sapodilla is an attractive upright, slow-growing, long-lived evergreen tree. Distinctly pyramidal when young, with age the tree may develops a crown that is dense and rounded or sometimes open and somewhat irregular in shape. The leaves are 3 to 4-1/2 inches long and 1 to 1-1/2 inches wide. They are medium green, glossy, alternate and spirally clustered at the tip of forked twigs. Flowers are small, inconspicuous and bell-like, approximately 3/8 inch in diameter. They are borne on slender stalks in the axil of the leaves. There are several flushes of flowers throughout the year. The fruit is round to egg-shape, 2 - 4 inches in diameter. The skin is brown and scruffy when ripe. The flesh varies from yellow to shades of brown and sometimes reddish-brown, and may be smooth or of a granular texture. The flavor is sweet and pleasant, ranging from a pear flavor to crunchy brown sugar. Fruits can be seedless, but usually have from 3 to 12 hard, black, shiny, flattened seeds about 3/4 inch long in the center of the fruit.

Chicle, the latex obtained from the bark of the tree has been used as a chewing gum base for many years.

Medicinal Uses:

Because of the tannin content, young fruits are boiled and the decoction taken to stop diarrhea. An infusion of the young fruits and the flowers is drunk to relieve pulmonary complaints. A decoction of old, yellowed leaves is drunk as a remedy for coughs, colds and diarrhea. A "tea" of the bark is regarded as a febrifuge and is said to halt diarrhea and dysentery. The crushed seeds have a diuretic action and are claimed to expel bladder and kidney stones. A fluid extract of the crushed seeds is employed in Yucatan as a sedative and soporific. A combined decoction of sapodilla and chayote leaves is sweetened and taken daily to lower blood pressure. A paste of the seeds is applied on stings and bites from venomous animals. The latex is used in the tropics as a crude filling for tooth cavities.

Source, History, and Preparation. Historically, M. zapta was an important source of timber and latex in the new world tropics (Janzen, 1983). The latex is a milk-white exudate produced in laticifer canals under the phloem bark surface (Simpson & Ogorzaly, 1995). The latex is known as chicle, which had its highest demand during the rubber boom of tropical America in the 1800's. When the United States and Great Brittain established Rubber tree (Hevea spp.) plantations in southeast Asia in 1876, the rubber boom occurred in tropical America. Economies were left helpless and Indian rubber collectors were massacred (Hill, 1996; Stanfield, 1998). The Chicle tree (synonyms: Sapodilla, Naseberry, Nispero) was the lone latex plant to economically survive.

The Mayan Indians of Mexico and Central America traditionally have chewed the raw chicle latex. Furthermore, Aztec prostitutes loudly snapped their chewing gum to advertise their trade during the height of pre-Columbian Aztec civilization (Plotkin, 1993). This custom was common to many Mexicans, including an eccentric political leader from Veracruz. He is Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, eleven time president of Mexico (born 1794, died 1876). His military prowess is capped by success at the battle of the Alamo (1836), where Santa Anna's troops killed Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie (Simpson & Ogorzaly, 1995). His eccentric political ways got him exiled to the West Indies. The U. S. Secretary of State, William Seward, payed Santa Anna a visit in the West Indies. Assuming he gained Seward's trust, Santa Anna sailed to New York in 1866. Santa Anna's shipmates stole his money, leaving him stranded in America where Santa Anna was turned away by Secretary of State Seward.

The exiled Mexican president was a wise businessman and politician who brought some chicle with him to New York. He hoped to find an inventor who could make rubber from the chicle latex, so Santa Anna could finance his return to political power in Mexico. Thomas Adams agreed to experiment with the latex, so Santa Anna returned to Mexico in March 1867 to arrange the shipment of two tons of chicle to New York. In short, Adams failed to invent a usable elastic product out of chicle. He was left with hundreds of pounds of chicle sitting around.

At the time, chewing gum was made of sweetened paraffin wax, which was not very chewy. Adams decided to mix the Mayan use of chicle with the chewing gum (wax) concept of the day to produce a new industry. He heated the latex until it softened, added sugar, and molded this into balls to be sold at drug stores. This chewing gum was an instant success, in part due to the popularity of chewing tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) in the late 1800's. The chewing gum industry of today originated with Adam's invention. In fact, he added flavorings to the gum and patented the first machine for manufacturing chewing gum. Today corn syrup, countless flavorings, and hard sugar coatings are added to chewing gum. A direct link to economic botany in today's chewing gum industry is the brand, Chiclets, whose name recognizes the Chicle tree as its historic source.

The Indians who tap the M. zapota tree for chicle are known as chicleros (Simpson & Ogorzaly, 1995; Castner, Timme, & Duke, 1998; Hill, 1937; Stanford, 1934). This title typically denotes a devoted Indian who carefully and precisely cuts zigzag gashes in the bark of the Chicle tree with a machete. The Maya Indian chicleros can occasionally still be found tapping for chicle up to fifty feet high in the M. zapota trees. The latex follows the gashes down to the base of the tree where it is collected in containers. The latex is consists of 20-25 percent chicle (Hill, 1937). The best time to tap the Chicle trees is during the mornings of the wet season (June to February) when the latex flow is greatest (Stanford, 1934). One flow lasts several hours and may yield up to 60 quarts of impure latex (Hill, 1937). A single tree must heal itself, so 2-6 years should occur between harvests. The raw latex is boiled to coagulate it into crude white chicle that is molded into blocks of 20 pounds. This boiling process takes skill to properly gauge when the chicle is at 33 percent moisture content and needs to be poured off (Hill, 1937). The components of crude chicle are resin, gutta, arabin, calcium, sugar, and various soluble salts. The blocks of chicle are shipped to the U. S. to be used as the base in chewing gum. The gum machinery that Adams patented is used to purify, clean, dry powder, reheat, and compound the chicle with flavoring materials. One tree yields 2.5 pounds of crude chicle (Stanford, 1934). Every 13 pounds of processed chicle makes approximately 5000 pieces of chewing gum (Hill, 1937). In the 1930's each piece of gum contained 15 percent chicle, and sugar, chicle substitutes, and flavoring substances.

Today, with the push for sustainable production of tropical forests, chicle is still harvested on a small scale as a non-timber forest product (NTFP). Green Industries promote the sale of rain forest products to economically well off consumers, but it is believed that public policy makers have failed to recognize the profitability of NTFP's like chicle (Balick & Cox, 1996). According to Mark Plotkin (1993), "Fortunately, enough demand for chicle persists that a portion of the rain forests of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize are still protected and managed for this product [chicle]."