Cherimoya trees, sometimes known as custard apples, are a small broad-headed evergreen tree grown for its large, exceptionally delicious fruits. Its erect growth, which spreads as it matures, carries dark green and slightly aromatic leaves a little like those of a laurel or rhododendron. In cooler climates, the tree may lose its leaves for a short while, often as new leaves are opening.
The small greenish flowers are carried on short stalks in groups of up to three at the leaf joints and are yellowish green in color and fruitily scented, the smell that attracts beetles to pollinate the flowers; without pollination the fruits will not develop.
The rounded, more or less heart-shaped, fruits are pale green or creamy yellow and about 4in (10cm), sometimes even up to 10in (20cm), long. They are made up of many small individual fruits all fused together to look like one large fruit. Once these evergreen trees are mature, they may produce from 30 to over 200 fruits per year, depending on age, growing conditions, and variety. Each fruit can be as much as a pound in weight (450g).
Fruits may take a year to ripen, and mature in summer, as the flowers for the next year’s fruits are opening, and eventually become pale green or creamy yellow.
The many segments of white flesh each contain one black seed (not edible) but the sweet and succulent flesh is juicy and full of flavor. 'Considered superior to a ripe pear,' says Margaret Barwick in her classic book Tropical and Subtropical Trees.
'The pineapple, the mangosteen, and the cherimoya,' wrote the botanist Dr Berthold Carl Seemann in New Crops For The New World, 'are considered the finest fruits in the world… and if I were asked which would be the best fruit, I would choose without hesitation, cherimoya.'
Cherimoya trees: key facts
- Plant type Evergreen, subtropical tree
- Mature size 25-30ft (7.5-9m)
- Soil type Fertile and well-drained
- Soil pH Slightly acid, neutral, alkaline
- Time to plant Late spring
- Flowering time Summer
- Flower color Greenish yellow
- Fruiting time Summer
- Fruit color Green, then yellowish and often softly spiny
- Hardiness zones USDA Z9-12 (RHS 1-2)
- Scientific name Annona cherimola
- Common name Cherimoya, soursop, graveola, guanabana, custard apple
How to choose a cherimoya tree for your yard
The best thing to do is to try and find a named variety. There are over a dozen named varieties of cherimoya trees, some are noted for their flavor, or their ability to grow in cooler conditions than other varieties, or for their capacity to produce fruit (although not always a full crop) without hand pollinations.
- ‘Big Sister’ has large, well-flavored fruits and will often crop without pollination.
- ‘Bronceada’ is also well-flavored but also tolerates cooler conditions and often self-pollinates.
- ‘Nata’ has a good flavor, fruits better than most when young, and may self-pollinate.
- ‘Sabor’ has perhaps the best flavor but the fruits can be small.
Where to plant cherimoya trees
Cherimoyas make good backyard trees and grow well in USDA Zone 10. Young trees should survive 30˚F (-1˚C) while mature trees should take 27˚F (-3˚C). However, unlike many tropical fruit trees, they dislike constant high heat and high humidity. In fact cherimoya trees need at least 100 hours at 43˚F (6˚C) or lower each winter to initiate spring growth and flower development.
They need full sun, preferably combined with cool nights, and although they appreciate full sun the leaves can scorch without a little shade from afternoon heat. They are more susceptible to cold chills than avocado trees or citrus but enjoy cool sea air. Areas with cool, dry winters suit them best.
Cherimoya trees are fairly adaptable when it comes to soil types, happy in sand or clay, although they prefer a rich and fertile soil with good drainage. They tend to develop a tap root, so sites with deep topsoil grow good cherimoyas but the trees do not thrive in containers.
The branches of cherimoya trees usually become quite brittle and the weight of ripe fruits combined with strong winds can cause damage, so look for a site sheltered from strong prevailing winds. If growing more than one cherimoya tree, space them 20-30ft (7-9m) apart.
How to plant cherimoya trees
Late spring, around May, is usually the best planting time. Dig a hole twice as deep as the roots on your young tree and twice as wide. Mix well-rotted garden compost or manure, plus a handful of general fertilizer, into the base of the hole and also mix it in equal parts with soil removed from the hole.
Place the tree in the hole, adjusting its depth so that the soil mark on the stem of bare root trees, or the surface of the soil in its pot, is level with the surrounding soil. Spread the roots out well, if necessary, and carefully refill the hole with the amended soil, working it around the roots.
Support the tree with a stout stake, knocked in at an angle to avoid damaging the roots and tied to the trunk about 2-3ft (60-90cm) above ground. Drive the stake into the ground to the side of the hole to at least 2ft (60cm) deep. Leave the stake in place until the tree is growing well.
After planting water in thoroughly, adding a liquid feed to help give the young tree a good start.
How to care for cherimoyas
Cherimoya trees appreciate consistently moist soil but overwatering, so that the soil becomes waterlogged, encourages root rots. As a precaution, it is usually wise not to water in winter but it pays to fertilize your cherimoya tree every two or three months during the growing season.
Cherimoya fruits can weigh as much as a pound (450g) each and the slender branches that develop on an unpruned tree may break under the strain of supporting ripe fruit.
If you're not sure when to prune fruit trees like cherimoyas, the best time is generally when the tree is dormant. Select two shoots for very 2ft (60cm) of trunk to be the main branches, ensuring they are spread all round the trunk. Cut them back to 2ft (60cm). The following year, cut each new shoot back leaving about five or six buds at the base to develop fruits and flowers. Also, check for branches rubbing against each other, and cut out the weaker.
How to make more cherimoyas
There are two ways to propagate cherimoyas to get free plants: from seeds and from cuttings.
Seeds sprout readily, in fact if you leave the fruits on the tree they will burst and the seeds may start to germinate before the fruits have even dropped off. So you can either collect seeds from a ripe fruit or buy seeds mail order.
Soak the seeds in water for three days, then plant two seeds, an inch deep, in a 5in (12.5cm) pot of seed starting mix. Keep the pots at a temperature of 65-75˚F (18-21˚C), the seeds should sprout in four or five weeks. If both sprout, remove the weaker of the two.
Grow the seedlings on until roots start to peep through the holes in the base of the pot then either plant them or move them into a larger pot – preferably one that is deeper than it is wide. Cherimoya seedlings have deep roots.
Cherimoyas can also be grown by taking cuttings. In winter, cut shoots 8-12in (20-30cm), long trimming them just below a bud at the base and just above a bud at the tip. Fill a pot with a 50:50 mix of sand and seed starting mix, choose a pot deep enough so that only the top bud is above the surface of the mix.
Keep the pot in a warm, light place until roots start to appear through the drainage holes in the base – usually after four to six weeks. At this stage, plant them out.
Cherimoya problems and how to solve them
The two main problems with cherimoya trees are mealy bugs and snails. Mealy bugs look a little like small dusty white pieces of fluff but inside is a tiny pink or yellow bug sucking the tree’s sap. They are sometimes found in clusters along leaf veins or around dormant buds. A spray of insecticidal soap is a favorite treatment.
In her invaluable book Fruits and Nuts, Susanna Lyle is blunt about her recommendation for dealing with slugs: 'Keep ducks and chickens,' she says. Organic slug treatments [available from Amazon] can also be very effective.
How to harvest cherimoya fruits
The fruits on a cherimoya tree usually take five to seven months to mature, sometimes longer, and are ready to pick when they are still firm but have changed color from dark green to a more yellowish green. The best flavor comes with leaving the fruits on the tree as long as possible, so that they start to soften, but not so long that they burst. The fruits finish ripening after picking and must be eaten promptly as the flavor quickly takes an unpleasant turn.
Although usually much smaller, a report in the Journal of the Jamaica Horticultural Society states: 'The fruits vary in weight between three and eight pounds, exceptionally large ones may reach sixteen pounds and over.'
The fruits do not store well so if you have more than you can use ripening at the same time, be sure to give away the surplus.
Are cherimoya trees self-pollinating?
Cherimoyas originate in the mountains of Peru and Ecuador where the flowers are pollinated by a specific type of beetle. Unfortunately, this type of beetle is not found elsewhere so in gardens cherimoyas may go unpollinated and fruit development may be poor unless the flowers are pollinated by hand.
Each segment of the fruit, with its white flesh containing a single black seed, is the result of one pollination, so the more pollinations the larger the fruit.
The male and female parts are carried in the same flower but, unfortunately, they do not ripen at the same time – the female parts ripen first, then a few hours later the male parts shed their pollen.
The simplest approach to pollination is to use an artist’s paint brush and simply pollinate every flower you can reach. Insert the brush into a flower till the tip of the brush touches the base. Twizzle it around a little to collect a little pollen then move on to the next flower. Insert the brush into each flower, rotate it just a little, then move on to the next flower, again and again.
Deal with as many flowers as you can reach. Simply leave the flowers high on the tree unpollinated, it would be difficult to harvest those fruits anyway.
This approach sets aside the need to identify whether male or female flowers are receptive – simply use the brush on them all and enough flowers should be pollinated to give you a crop.
Start hand pollinating in late spring or early summer, and go round the tree pollinating two or three times at four or five day intervals.
How big do cherimoya trees grow?
Cherimoyas are relatively small to medium sized, but they are fast growing trees. They can be sufficiently mature to bear their first fruits just two years after planting and may eventually reach 35ft (10m) in height and spread. They can live for up to 50 years.
However, regular pruning is advisable to keep the flowering and fruiting growth at a manageable height for hand pollinating and harvesting.
Is the whole cherimoya fruit edible?
No. Most parts of the cherimoya tree are poisonous, in fact only the delicious creamy white flesh is edible. In particular, discard the skin and the seeds. The seeds are like small black beans and show up well against the white flesh so there is little chance of eating one by mistake.
The seeds are toxic in a variety of ways and, although some effects are not serious, they are always best avoided. They have sometimes been used to create an insecticide.
But the flesh of the cherimoya was described by Mark Twain as 'Deliciousness itself'.
How to buy cherimoya trees
Cherimoya is one of the tastiest tropical fruits you can grow but, unfortunately, this does not mean that young trees are easy to buy. There are three reasons.
First, cherimoya is a subtropical tree that will only grow well in a few areas of the country. Second, to be sure of a good crop of fruits, the flowers need pollinating by hand. Third, when ripe, the fruits only remain at their best for a short period.
The result is that few mail order nurseries offer cherimoya trees and the named varieties are especially difficult to track down. Look out for the named varieties, both in local nurseries and at online sources, and if you come across one – buy it! Unfortunately, in the long term, cherimoyas do not thrive in containers so look for an alternative variety if you want to grow fruit trees in pots.
Look for trees at large nurseries, the garden departments of DIY stores or ask your local co-operative extension service, they should be able to suggest local sources.
The alternative is to buy seeds from sellers on online marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay and Etsy. Cherimoya trees are easy to raise from seed but you have no way of knowing if your seedling cherimoya will crop well or not.
Where to buy cherimoya trees in the US
- Shop cherimoya trees at Amazon
- Shop cherimoya trees at Ebay
- Shop cherimoya trees at Etsy
- Shop cherimoya trees at Trade Wind Fruits
Where to buy cherimoya trees in the UK
Graham Rice is a garden writer who has won awards for his work online, and in books and magazines, on both sides of the Atlantic. He is a member of a number of Royal Horticultural Society committees and the recipient of the 2021 Garden Media Guild Lifetime Achievement Award.
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