by Cheryl Miller
During the summer months the fruit of the Cyrtocarpa edulis, the wild plums of Baja Sur mature.
Mexican families flock to the desert to gather these small fruit for their families’ free enjoyment.
Some walk the streets of Los Cabos selling the fruit by the bag full. The fruit is about an 1” to 1-1/4”
in diameter, yellow to reddish orange when ripe that has a sweet-sour taste to its yellowish pulp. They have a large brown pit or seed, which is also edible, that some say tastes similar to coconut. If you have never tried some, do try it. They are a delicacy you can´t find anywhere but Baja California Sur! And if you like jelly, they make a wonderful unique topping that goes great as a condiment with meat when made with vinegar or when sweetened, as a spread that my grandson enjoys on his peanut butter sandwiches.
Plums, commercially grown in the world, are categorized in the Rose Family or Rosaceae Family, within a sub-family called Prunoideae sub-genus Prunophora which contains the stone fruits that we know commercially as plums and apricots. Our Baja Sur plums are not in this family or genus at all. They are actually from the Anacardiaceae or Cashew or Sumac Family. A Family found most predominantly in the tropics and sub-tropics of the world. In actuality, our Wild Plums are more closely related to the cashew, mango and pistachio than to a plum. But the common English name ´Wild Plum´ is pretty much internationally accepted for all species of the Cyrtocarpa members throughout the world.
There are now, since 2006, 8 species of Cyrtocarpa types of plants recognized in the entire world. The Cyrtocarpa edulis was the only species found in the Baja, recognized as far back as back as the late 1580’s when Francisco Hernandez wrote an atlas on the medicinal plants of Mexico for the crown of Spain and cited their astringent and sugary qualities, as well as, their almond like nuts and their use as a red colorant by the natives. He also stated that the natives used the plant for respiratory problems such as asthma and to relieve the chills and constipation. On record from that time is the use of this plant as a food source with the Guaycura & Pericue Indians. A tradition carried on now for thousands of years. The Wild Plum was formally renamed and categorized in 1923 by Paul Carpenter Standley. They exist here in Baja California Sur and only Baja California Sur, from the Sierra Gigante Mountains north of La Paz to the Cape Region, flourishing best in the eastern areas of the Peninsula. Although archaeological evidence has placed some seeds in the Bahia de Conception area, it is unknown if this was a product of trade between the Indian tribes, or a formerly enlarged area of growth. And so they have been recognized and have been categorized until 2005, when a new variety was found and submitted to the botanical societies for review and subsequently approved in 2006. In 1996, Cyrtocarpa edulis var glabra was identified by two young Mexican botanists from the mainland in the Meliton Albanez area. Their studies found this new sub-species range is from Punto Conejo to Playa Las Tunas near Todos Santos on the Pacific Coast within La Paz County. This new variety differs from its parent specie only by the lack of trichomes (fine outgrowths or appendages, like hairs) on the leaf surface and a more prostrate growth pattern due to the soil conditions they grow in, such as sand dunes. So now, officially for the last few years, Baja Sur hosts 2 of the 8 Cyrtocarpa species known in the entire world. The world of botany, like all sciences, is ever changing!
Ciruelo, Ciruelo del Monte or Ciruelo Cimmarón, as it is known in Spanish, is a spreading thick trunked tree with grey bark, whose end branches are tipped in maroon colored twigs and pinnately compound green leaves. The tree can grow as tall as 8 meters high and when found together and dormant, may appear like an unkempt apple orchard. It grows best where some water is present, in well drained soils and it is deciduous, to reserve its water supplies. The Wild Plum of Baja, like many desert plants, is a caudiciform, a type of plant that has a thickened base or root ball that stores water for the plant to survive during hot seasons and droughts. It reproduces from either seed or from cuttings.
Like the mango, the fleshy fruit or drupes of the Wild Plum is connected to the large seed by fibers. And like many members of the Sumac Family, tannin sacs are present. Avoid eating too much of the skins as the tannin content is highest in the skin. Tannins, also used for curing leathers, has anti-nutritional phenolic components which are found in the cell sap of approximately 80% of woody and 15% of herbaceous dicotyledonous species of plants. Ingestion of tannin-containing food by humans and animals may reduce digestibility, particularly that of protein and has been known to cause stomach discomfort. (So avoid eating
too many mango skins as well.) It is best to squish the fruit out into your mouth, peel or process for jelly or jam. The sap of the tree is highly poisonous and may be foul smelling. The miniscule flowers of the tree are white to greenish and occur in May.
In 2005, the Foundation for Baja California Sur held a program for school children on El Magote Peninsula in La Paz called “Adopt a Ciruelo”. Some local experts claim that the El Magote Ciruelo is unique displaying asexual reproductive patterns. They claim that El Magote is the only place in the world this forest of Ciruelos exist and have gathered 60% of the seeds for preservation and distribution throughout the City of La Paz in an effort to maintain and propagate the species. As many of the genus and species of the Cashew family have both male and female flowers on the same plant, their claim is yet to be recognized as a new species by the world’s botanical societies. But, who knows though, soon there may be 9 species of Cyrtocarpa recognized internationally!