THE ACKEE – JAMAICA’S NATIONAL FRUIT
The ackee (Blighia sapida) is the national fruit of Jamaica. It also forms a part of Jamaica’s national dish – ackee and salt fish.
The name ackee is from the Twi language of Ghana. The tree was brought to Jamaica from West Africa and its introduction was recorded in 1778 when the plants were purchased from the captain of a slave ship. Captain William Bligh, who brought the first breadfruit to Jamaica, also took the first ackee from Jamaica to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, in 1793. In 1806, it was officially described and given the botanical name Blighia sapida, in his honour.
Jamaican ackee trees are found across the island of Jamaica, but the main producing areas are located in Clarendon and St Elizabeth. There are two bearing seasons – between January to March and June to August – though Jamaican ackee fruiting can occur throughout the year.
The fruit grows on a tree which can shoot up to 18m under favourable conditions and bear large, red to yellow fruits, 7.5 – 10 cm long, which when ripe bursts into three sections, each revealing a shiny, black, round seed atop a bright, yellow aril which is the part cooked when eaten. The tree is a familiar sight in many Jamaican yards, including urban areas, and is cultivated from sea level to over 900m. Ackee grows naturally from seed, but can also be propagated from tip-cuttings to provide seedlings for orchard culture.
Ackee pods should be allowed to ripen on the tree before picking as unripe ackees contain a poison called hypoglycin. Only naturally opened ackee fruits should be eaten, and care should be taken to remove the pink or purplish membrane near the seed. Great care must be exercised in using the ackee fruit as both immature and over mature ackees may be toxic. Only mature, fresh arils must be selected for eating and, prior to cooking, the arils must be cleaned and washed. The arils are then boiled and the water discarded. When harvested and prepared correctly, the arils are delicious and safe to eat. However, consumers of the unripe fruit can suffer from an illness called “Jamaican Vomiting Sickness”.
As a delicacy, the ackee is enjoyed by many Jamaicans at breakfast or as a treat, as well as by both visitors to the island and Jamaicans residents overseas. The fruit is cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas around the world and has become a major feature of various Caribbean cuisines. The canned ackee is also one of Jamaica’s major export products.
The ackee also has many other uses apart from consumption. The dried seeds, fruit, bark and leaves are used in traditional folk medicine. Ackee leaves are boiled to make a topical application for pain and a tea for colds. In Jamaica, and parts of West Africa, the inside of the shell surrounding the aril is used as a soap to scour pots. Crushed ackee pods can be used to catch fish as they have a narcotic effect on fish, making them rise to the surface where they can be easily caught. In Ghana, the flowers of the ackee tree are used to make soap and perfume.
Ackee and salt fish- Jamaica’s national dish
Ripe ackee pods