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Miracle grows in Hawaiian gardens

March 2, 2014 - 12:05am

Several tropical plants are named “miracle berry” or “miracle fruit,” but only one grows in Hawaii. The source of the “miracle” in Synsepalum dulcificum is a glycoprotein called miraculin that is contained in the fleshy part of this plant’s small red fruit. When you eat the fruit, the protein binds to your taste buds

The “miracle” names also refer to two other plant species, Gymnema sylvestre and Thaumatococcus danielli. These plants also alter the taste of foods toward sweetness.

G. sylvestre is native to India and contains its sweetness in the leaves. T. danielli has a small, soft fruit covered in a fleshy red aril which contains an intensely sweet protein called thaumatin. These plants are being researched as sweeteners, but they are not readily available here.

The miracle fruit that can be found in Hawaii originated in tropical West Africa where the pulp of the fruit is still used to sweeten palm wine as well as bread made from soured corn. Though it actually has a low sugar content, the fruit has a mildly sweet tang. During a 1725 excursion to West Africa, the European explorer Chevalier des Marchais reported that local people were picking the berry and chewing it before meals. This report sparked interest in the fruit. The plants are now grown in many tropical regions worldwide, including Hawaii.

In the 1970s, attempts were made to commercialize the miracle fruit’s unique ability to make unsweet food taste sweet as a way of reducing caloric intake. The project was halted when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classified miracle berries as a food additive rather than a sweetener. With no commercial application of its sweetening properties possible, a kind of cult following developed around miracle fruit.

During the 1970s, “miraculin parties” became popular. At these events, miracle berries were consumed followed by foods such as lemons, radishes, hot sauce and beer to experience the flavor changes. Though the popularity of these parties has diminished, the New York Times described one held recently. At this event, the host had his guests chew miracle berries and hold the pulp in their mouths for a minute. He then ushered them to tables where they could taste such things as citrus fruit, cheese, vegetables, vinegar and beer to experience the flavor changes.

Parties with miracle berry tastings are being revived in many locales, including at a recent reading of Adam Leith Gollner’s book “The Fruit Hunters,” which features the fruit. The effect of eating the berry can last for an hour or two and provides interesting tasting experiences but does not affect any other part of the nervous system.

If you want to hold your own food tasting party, consider growing your own miracle fruit. The plants are slow growing. When grown from seed you can expect them to be 2 feet tall within three years and start producing flowers and fruit around that time. You can also find plants that are near maturity for sale at several area nurseries. A fully mature miracle fruit shrub can reach 6 to 10 feet.

The flowers of the miracle fruit are very small and white with five petals. They appear to stay closed during pollination but once the tight white flowers appear, you can encourage fruiting by shaking the plant or rubbing your hands over the flowers to release their pollen. The flower only opens fully once it has been pollinated. Once pollinated, the flower dries and turns dark brown, then the fruit begins to grow and push the dried flowers off the plant.

Mature plants will flower and fruit nearly year-round. Miracle berries are green as they ripen and turn red when fully ripe. They will hold on the plant for several weeks when ripe but will not last in the refrigerator for more than a week once picked. Each fruit contains a single black seed about the size of a coffee bean that can be planted to grow additional plants.

A moist planting medium of half perlite and half peat moss kept in indirect light should help seeds germinate quickly. The seeds will usually germinate in 2 to 3 weeks but the germination rate is often as low as 24 percent. Research has shown using small amounts of gibberelic acid can aid germination.

Miracle fruit plants grow best in acid soils with a pH between 4.5 and 5.8. Though the plants can tolerate some drought and sunny heat, they grow best in partial shade with high humidity. The plants can eventually grow into an attractive hedge of 6 to 10 feet tall enhanced by small, deep green dense foliage and the appearance of bright red fruit.

Once established, miracle fruit plants do not need much attention. Pruning can help shape the shrub as it grows. Fertilizing regularly with a balanced fertilizer especially for acid loving plants will also help the shrub grow into a healthy specimen. Regular watering is needed. Check your plant regularly for aphids and scale and treat accordingly.

Miracle fruit has several uses beyond curiosity and parties. People have been known to take miracle fruit to treat diabetes and to correct the taste disturbances that sometimes follow chemotherapy. In foods, miracle fruit is sometimes used as a low-calorie sugar-free sweetener.

This plant is attractive and easy to grow. Consider including one in your garden for its appearance as well as the fun offered by the taste altering properties of the fruit.

Diana Duff is an organic farmer, plant adviser and consultant.