With Some Folk Medicine History


Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food. Old Chinese proverb.


 Reputable authorities on human nutrition now advise us to eat from 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Statistics indicate that those who do have significant less heart disease, cancer and auto-immune malfunction.


We have known through most of the 20th century that fruit is an invaluable source of Vitamin C and essential minerals such as potassium, phosphorous, magnesium or calcium. The very recent science of phyto (plant) chemicals has discovered numerous other micro-nutrients in plant foods heretofore unknown. These include antioxidants, acids, sugars and flavanoids that one health writer has called “nature’s hand grenades to throw against cancer and other auto-immune diseases.”


It simply means that more goodness and health is found in fruit than we have realized.


Without knowing any of the findings of the scientific age, indigenous cultures for centuries found relief from infections, parasites and other illnesses in the fruit and leaves of trees. At least half of the world’s population today do not have access to modern medicine and must therefore continue to rely on natural remedies. But even where modern medicine is freely available, more and more people are turning to the use of nature-based products for “complementary” medicine.


Tropical Fruit World and Research Park is a horticultural rather than a medical enterprise.  We advise everybody to consult their own health professional on all medical questions. We do not recommend or prescribe any natural remedies. But in this publication we will report on how the fruit and leaves of various trees have been used in folk medicine as a remedy for illnesses or as an aid to human well-being. We simply report these things without making any medical claims, implied or otherwise, in respect to the use of any fruit or plant.


We would like the visitor to Tropical Fruit World to find that the traditions and possible uses of tropical fruit are fascinating and exciting.  We hope that the reader will discover a lot of fun and surprises in the exuberant colours and extravagant flavours than only tropical fruit can embody.



AVOCADO (Persia Americana)


If you could choose only one fruit to sustain you on a deserted island, you could not do better than to choose the Avocado. It alone would give you every vitamin, mineral, and amino acid (protein) essential to human health, plus vital fatty acids and fibre. 


Put simply, the Avocado is the world’s most nutritious fruit not just in terms of body fuel (calories or kilojoules) but in terms of its astounding balance of essential nutrients. Besides, if you happened to be very young or old with a weak digestion or needed a fruit low in sugar with a low glycemic index (GI) because you had diabetes, the avocado is top of the list.


If that is not enough to recommend this amazing fruit, Avocado is packed with a group of amino acids called glutathione that work as an antioxidant to fight against cancer and the aging process. The fruit is rich in beta-sitosterol that is now prescribed as an anti-cholesterol drug. Used internally or externally, the avocado happens to be a genuine beauty aid for promoting younger looking skin and healthy hair.


And there is more! Avocados were celebrated as an aphrodisiac among the Aztec Indians in whose territory in Central America the fruit originated. If there is any scientific basis to their aphrodisiac myth, it could in the fact that avocado oil contains a fatty acid/alcohol called octocasanol (found also in wheat germ oil). Octocasanol has been shown to increase muscle stamina during exercise and even the sexual activity of rats. The truth of the aphrodisiac thing, however, may simply be that Avocados are a genuine super food that promote overall health and wellbeing.


As a butter fruit, the Avocado enhances the flavour of other foods. It is the most versatile of all fruits because it may be used in dips, spreads, salads, mains, desserts and even drinks. The range of good avocado recipes is simply endless.



ABIU (Pouteria caimito)


This bright yellow fruit has the size and appearance of a roundish lemon. It comes from the Amazon region in South America.  Its white, almost translucent flesh has a gorgeous light caramel taste. The fruit is highly nutritious, almost topping the list of any fruit in the world for its amazing calcium, phosphorous, protein and niacin content. Its vitamin C level is also impressively higher than most citrus fruit.


In Brazil, the fruit is used to make a gummy pulp to relieve coughs, bronchitis and other pulmonary complaints. The sticky, astringent latex near the skin or in the unripe fruit is used as a vermifuge and cleanser, or is applied on abscesses.



STAR APPLE (Chrysophyllum cainito)


This fruit is a close relative to the Abiu.  Its fruit texture and latex is quite similar, only that the Star Apple has a purple or green skin, whilst the flesh inside presents a pretty white and purple star when the fruit is cut in half. This gives the fruit great decorative qualities.  Although pleasant to eat, the Star Apple lacks the fuller taste and the outstanding nutritional levels of the Abiu.


A decoction (made by boiling the leaves) is used against diabetes and articular rheumatism. The latex is used in the same way as the latex of the Abiu.  The fruit pulp is eaten to sooth sore throats and to relieve other pulmonary disorders. It is also reported by the Purdue University horticultural website that Cubans are known to make a decoction of the leaves as a cancer remedy.



BLACK SAPOTE ( Diospyros digyna)


Variously called Black Persimmon or Chocolate Pudding Fruit, the Black Sapote does not belong to the Sapotacea family of fruits at all. Although it is native to Mexico, it happens to be related to the Oriental Persimmon. It is ready to eat only when it turns marshmallow soft.  When the chocolate coloured pulp if mixed with cream, ice-cream or milk it takes on the delicious taste of mild chocolate. The Jamaicans like to blend it with orange juice.


Nutritionally, the Chocolate Pudding Fruit is noted for having about four times the Vitamin C content of an orange as well as being a rich source of dietary calcium, phosphorous and potassium.


In Southern Mexico a decoction of the astringent leaves are used to reduce fever. In other places, leaf preparations are used to treat a range of skin disorders, including leprosy.



 BANANA (Musa sp.)


In the popularity stakes, the Banana wins hands down as the world’s most highly consumed fruit. It is famous as a source of high energy and dietary potassium. Throughout the world the fruit is eaten ripe out of hand, cooked, dried or served as salted banana chips. The leaves are widely used for wrapping food for cooking. The fibre of the banana plant has been used to make native handbags, rope and even clothing. Large undamaged leaves come in handy as an improvised umbrella by placing the leaf over the head and down the back.


Concerning the wide medicinal use of the banana plant, the Purdue University horticultural site reports, “All parts of the banana plant have medicinal applications: the flowers in bronchitis and dysentery and on ulcers; cooked flowers are given to diabetics; the astringent plant sap in cases of hysteria, epilepsy, leprosy, fevers, haemorrhages, acute dysentery and diarrhoea, and it is applied on haemorrhoids, insect and other stings and bites; young leaves are placed as poultices on burns and other skin afflictions; the astringent ashes of the unripe peel and of the leaves are taken in dysentery and diarrhoea and used for treating malignant ulcers; the roots are administered in digestive disorders, dysentery and other ailments.”  And more!


We need to remember that dysentery and diarrhoea are still major killers in areas of the world where people have access only to such natural remedies.



CANISTEL (Pouteria campechiana)


This Central American fruit is also known as the Egg Fruit – so-called because the edible flesh has the colour and even the texture of a hard boiled egg yoke. It also goes by the name of the Yellow Sapote because it belongs to the sapotacea family of fruits, and is very closely related to the Mamey Sapote. Both of these fruits have a taste that resembles a sweet potato or pumpkin-pie dessert. The texture of the Canistel flesh, being a little dry, is enhanced by the addition of cream or milk to make delicious desserts or milk shakes. 


When it comes to nutrition, the Canistel is a real contender for being called a super food.

It packs about 50% more energy than the Banana, nearly as much protein as the Avocado, about as much niacin and vitamin C as the amazing abiu fruit, plus high amounts of dietary calcium and phosphorous.


In Mexico, a decoction of the bark from the Canistel tree is used for the relief of fevers, and it applied on skin eruptions in Cuba.



MAMEY SAPOTE (Pouteria sapota)


This is the largest (the mother) of all the sapotacea family of fruits, all of which originated in Central America. A mature tree loaded with Mamey Sapotes is a sight to see. The pink/red flesh of this fruit is soft and fibreless like an avocado, earning it the nick- name of the Orange Avocado.


The taste resembles something like sweet potato flavoured with dates. Or an American- style pumpkin pie dessert. In the few places where the fruit can be procured in the United States, the Mamey Sapote milkshake is a rage. It may also be added to green salads like avocado.


The nutritional table of the Mamey Sapote is very similar to the table for the Canistel.  It too is high in energy, calcium, phosphorous and niacin. It is also much higher in protein than most fruit. It contains an appreciable amount of vitamin C (29 mg per 100 grams).


The oil from Mamey Sapote seeds is used among many Central American natives as a hair tonic.  Tests have proven that it is effective against dermatitis of the scalp. A decoction of the bitter bark of the tree is administered in Costa Rica for hypertension.



GREEN SAPOTE (Pouteria viride)


The Green Sapote tree looks so much like the Mamey Sapote that it is difficult to tell them apart.  The fruit of the Green Sapote is generally smaller than its sister fruit, but the difference between the taste of one fruit and the other would be no greater than the difference between an orange and a mandarin. Most palates would rate the taste of the Green Sapote as slightly better.  Not surprisingly, the nutritional table is much the same for both fruits except that the Green Sapote has nearly double the amount of vitamin C (53 mg per 100 grams).


The medicinal uses of the Green Sapote are the same as the Mamey Sapote



SAPODILLA (Manilkara sapota)


Sapodilla, originating in southern Mexico and Guatemala, also belongs to the sapotaceae family of fruits that includes the Mamey Sapote, the Green Sapote, the Canistel, the Abiu and the Star Apple.  Sapodilla is the sweetest member of the family because it has the highest fruit sugar content.  The fruit is about the size of a Kiwi fruit.  It has an unattractive brown skin like the Mamey Sapote, but inside the flesh tastes like a granular pear that has been dipped in brown sugar syrup.


Today the fruit is popular in India, Thailand and some other south-east Asian countries where it goes by the name of Chicu. This name comes from the word chicle, which is the latex (or sap) bled from the tree. This sap was the original chewing gum used in the confectionary industry. The industry now uses a cheaper synthetic product. The Sapodilla, therefore, is the original “chewing gum tree.”


Immature fruit contain tannin. They are boiled and the decoction is taken to stop dysentery and diarrhoea.  It is also drunk as a remedy for coughs and colds. A paste made from the seeds is applied to relieve stings and bites.





The three most significant fruit from the Annonaceae family are the Soursop, the Rollinia and the Custard Apple.


SOURSOP (Annona muricata)


This truly magnificent fruit is native to Central America and the West Indies. In the Spanish speaking countries of its origin it is known as Guanabana, while in the Portuguese language of Brazil it is called Graviola.


The Soursop tree is more tropical than its custard apple cousin, but grows quite well in the warmer coastal pockets of Northern NSW. Unlike the Custard Apple which is too sweet for some palates, the gleaming white flesh of the soursop is tangy like a lemon sherbet, and is suitable for processing and preserving. Some of the best fruit drinks and ice creams in the world are made by blending soursop with iced water or milk and a little sweetening.  In Brazil the popular soursop drink goes by the name of Champola.


The fruit is a good source of calcium, phosphorous, and the vitamins B1, B2 and C.


Soursop has a long tradition of use in folk medicine. The juice of the ripe fruit is regarded as a tonic. It is used as a fever stopper, parasite killer and an antidiuretic. A decoction of the green fruit is used as a remedy for diarrhoea. But it is the leaves of the tree that have gained the widest reputation as a sedative and soporific (sleep inducer).  They are used to moderate high blood pressure and high blood sugar levels, and to treat common coughs, fevers, indigestion, rheumatism, inflammations and swollen feet.


In recent years there has been a growing interest in using soursop leaves in the treatment of some cancers in alternative and complimentary medicine. A number of Internet sites are reporting  research into the phytochemicals found in the annonacea family of plants that may prove to have antiviral and anti-carcenogenic properties. More than half of our modern medicines are derived from plants. That the leaves from some trees are thought to contain healing powers is a very old tradition among human cultures.



ROLLINIA (Rollinia deliciosa and Rollinia mucosa)


The Rollinia is sometimes called the Amazon Custard Apple because it is very popular in Western Amazonia. The fruit is not ultra sweet like a custard apple, however, nor is it tangy like the Soursop. It falls somewhere in between, having a mild sweetness with a hint of lemon. Its taste and slightly gluggy texture suggests its likeness to a delicious lemon meringue. It is for this reason that it is called the lemon meringue fruit at Tropical Fruit World.


Unfortunately this truly fabulous fruit has to turn yellow and ripen on the tree before it is harvested. This gives it a very short shelf life, so it is not likely to be sold to the public except at local farmers’ markets.


Rollinia has more protein in it than almost any other kind of fruit. It is also an excellent source of calcium, phosphorous, iron and vitamin C.


Rollinia is highly prized and is even used for wine making in some areas of Brazil. In folk medicine the fruit is used as a cooling and soothing agent to relieve fevers and internal irritations.


CUSTARD APPLE (Annona atemoya)


The Custard Apple fruit is the best known of the annonaceae family of fruit.  The species that is known to Australians was developed by crossing the American Cherimoya and the American Sugar Apple.  The two best known varieties – Pink Mammonth and African Pride – were developed in Queensland and in South Africa respectively.


The pearl white flesh is very sweet and aromatic. The flavour is enhanced by chilling or even freezing. The fruit is generally eaten out of hand with a spoon or cut into fruit salads. It may be blended with orange juice, lime and cream to make a delicious ice-cream.


Custard Apple is an excellent source of potassium (250 mg per 100 grams), calcium, phosphorous, iron, and vitamins A and C.


Custard Apple seeds are very toxic.  The indigenous people of Central America ground the seeds of their close annonaceae cousins and used them as an insecticide and an agent to remove lice.



GUAVA (Psidium quavaja)


Guava is one of largest edible fruit crops of the world. It is a small and very hardy tree that grows wild along roadsides and in the bush throughout many of the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. Even in some countries that produce thousands of tons of guava pulp, it is estimated that the wild crop exceeds the amount that is commercially grown and harvested.


Guava comes in many shapes and sizes – from the small cherry guavas to varieties that are as large as a grapefruit, some with pink or red flesh and some with creamy white flesh. The fruit has a strong, sweet and very pleasant taste and musky odour. The soft interior of the fruit is full of gritty little seeds that have to be swallowed rather than chewed. Hawaii has popularized a red Guava juice, but visitors to Malaysia, Thailand and other South East Asian destinations will discover that the hotels often put a fresh green Guava juice on the menu.  Made from large green juicing guavas that have thick pitchy flesh under the skin, this juice takes like a superior apple juice.


The most outstanding nutritional feature of Guava is its high concentration of vitamin C – five or more times than an orange. However, most of the vitamin C is not in the soft centre of the fruit, but in the flesh beneath the skin, and more so when the fruit is semi-ripe. The best source of vitamin C is found in a variety called the Guisaro or Pineapple Cherry Guava. It grows on a small hardy shrub that is ideal for the home garden, not only because it is attractive, but because the fruit has a tough skin that is resistant to fruit fly.


When it comes to folk medicine or natural remedies, the uses of the Guava is astonishing. First of all the leaves and immature fruit, because of their astringency, are commonly used to halt gastroenteritis, dysentery and diarrhoea throughout the tropics. A leaf decoction is used as a remedy for coughs, for throat and chest ailment, for fevers and for skin ailments.


In recent times the antibacterial, antiamoebic and antispasmodic properties of Guava has been validated by clinical tests. Some natural medicine advocates claim that guava is beneficial for hypertension and for lowering blood sugar levels. But because guava is also a cardiac depressant, it should be used with caution by those on heart medications.

(For further reading, see the websites  and )



ACEROLA (Malphighia glabra)


This little West Indian berry grows on a pretty shrub that would enhance any home garden. It is also called the Barbados Cherry.  When it comes to vitamin C, this little berry tops the list of most fruit except for the little known Billygoat Plum from the Northern Territory. Acerola packs more than 30 times vitamin C than an orange gram for gram – that is, about 2,500 mg per 100 grams, and nearly double that amount if it is mature green fruit.  One berry contains more than the minimum adult requirement for vitamin C. The fruit is also rich in vitamin A, iron, calcium, magnesium, niacin, phosphorous, potassium, riboflavonine and thiamine


In the West Indies the Acerola was called the “the tree of life” due to its fame in folk medicine. The fruit was considered beneficial for liver ailments, diarrhoea and dysentery. Not surprisingly, they used Acerola for coughs and colds, and gargled the fruit juice to relieve sore throats.


RED DRAGON FRUIT (Hylocereus undatus and Hylocereus polyrhyizus)

YELLOW DRAGON FRUIT (Hylocereus guatamelensis) (Selenicereus megalanthus)


In the Central and South American countries where these cactus fruits originated, they generally go by the Spanish name of Pitaya or Pitahya. As their cultivation has spread around the world, the fruit has acquired a great variety of names, including dragon fruit, a name derived from its widespread cultivation in Asian countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.


Dragon Fruit generally have an attractive red skin decorated with petals that resemble the petals of an artichoke. The appearance of the fruit suggests a likeness to a gorgeous red flower. When the fruit is cut in half, it looks almost too good to be eaten. The most striking species (Hylocereus polyrhyizus) has the brightest cardinal red flesh dotted with tiny black seeds; the other species (Hylocereus undatus) has gleaming white flesh dotted with tiny black seeds.  This latter species often goes by the name of “Pearl Dragon Fruit.”


The taste of both species of the Dragon Fruit is almost the same. It resembles a kiwi fruit in both texture and taste. The thick leathery skin may be pealed off as easily as a banana skin, or a half of the fruit may be scooped out with a spoon. The mild, sweet flesh may be enhanced by some lemon or lime juice.


The colour of the red-fleshed Dragon Fruit immediately suggests all kinds of decorative possibilities in salads and desserts. Its powerful red pigments are a natural food colorant.


New to the Australian market, the red Dragon Fruit are quickly becoming popular and widely cultivated to meet a growing demand. Next to Avocado, the Dragon Fruit and Yellow Pitahya has become Tropical Fruit World’s largest commercial crop.


The Yellow Pitahya (Selenicereus magalanthus) that should not be called Dragon Fruit if for no other reason than it belongs to another genus of the cacticeae family. It has yellow skin, white flesh and black seeds like the dragon pearl, but its flesh is much sweeter than either red dragon fruit. The Yellow Pitahya is the best tasting cactus fruit of all.  It is half the size of its red cousins and is covered in spines that fortunately are easily brushed away when the fruit if ripe. The seeds in all these cactus fruit add nothing but decoration and some pleasant crunch, being just as edible as the seeds in kiwi fruit.


The red-fleshed Dragon Fruit is one of the richest known sources of betacyanin, an antioxidant that fights against cancer and the ageing process. The powerful red pigments that contain the betacyanin are now being researched as a replacement for some harmful artificial food colorants.  


In the folk medicine of Central America and the herbal medicine of the Chinese, Dragon Fruit is considered an aid to the treatment of diabetes, hypertension, endocrine disorders, rheumatism and even poor eyesight. The flowers from the dragon fruit plants may be cooked and eaten like a vegetable or be used to brew a tea. When an Israeli researcher found the fruit growing in Sicily in 1984, the locals told him how the plant was used to treat prostate ailments “When you age and begin to have problems, add the flowers of the plant to your tea and you will be young again,” they promised him with smiling eyes. It is now known that the plant is a rich source of B-sitosterol, a phystosterol thought to have a protective role in prostate, breast and colon cancers.


The Yellow Pitahya is widely regarded in folk medicine as a heart tonic. A preparation of the flowers and young shoots of the plant (crushed and dried) have been used to treat irregular heart beat and angina pectoris.  In some cases an extract of the young shoots and flowers is used in an alcoholic tincture. It is now known that this plant material contains an alkaloid called cactine which acts on the body in much the same way as digitalis. Cactine is widely used in the cosmetic industry as a beauty aid – which is probably much safer than being used as a heart medicine.



PAPAYA (Carica papaya)


The Papaya originated in Central America, but is now grown in every tropical and sub-tropical country in the world.  The plant is actually a giant herb rather than a tree.  In Australia and a few other countries in the Commonwealth of Great Britain, the fruit goes by the name of Papaw or Paw Paw.


Contrary to what some people imagine, the Carica papaya is a single species of fruit that goes by two different names. There are just different varieties of the fruit that comes in different shapes and sizes as well as different colours and tastes just like there are different varieties of mandarins. In tropical countries, the flesh of the Papaya is often pink or red. The Reds, as they are sometimes called, have a mild sweet taste without that very distinctive, and to some palates, objectionable  Papaya taste The yellow-fleshed Papaya, on the other hand, do better in sub-tropical regions, and they do have a stronger, and sometimes slightly bitter taste.


The taste of Papaya is enhanced enormously by the addition of some lime juice. The taste of a strong yellow Papaya can be made acceptable to almost any palate if the fruit is cut into cubes and simmered in lemon juice and honey for several minutes. If not otherwise told, most dinner guests would guess that they were eating delicious stewed peaches.


In some countries, mature green Papaws are cooked as a vegetable or grated and made into a delicious green Papaya (Thai) salad that is marinated in lemon juice and flavoured with oyster sauce, ginger, garlic chill and peanuts.


When it comes to an all round health fruit, Papaya is a strong contender to head the list.

The fruit contains a fair source of calcium and iron, a good source of vitamins A, B, and G, and an excellent source of vitamin C – nearly double the amount of an orange. Its most unique feature is that it contains a digestive agent called papain. This breaks down the amino acids (proteins). Papain is also used as tenderizer in the food industry. Whether the fruit is eaten by infants or the old and very frail, it facilitates good digestion and helps to alleviate reflux and some other digestive disorders. There is much more papain in the green fruit.


Papaya with cereal makes the ideal breakfast. It will set the stomach in a good mood for the day. Or blend up some Papaya, preferably with the skin (no seeds), orange juice and honey to get that papain working for you.


The seeds are spicy like black pepper.  Not many should be eaten by pregnant women, however, because in some countries the seeds or green Papaya are eaten to induce an abortion.


In folk medicine, the papain found in the sap of the green Papaya is used to treat ulcers and skin infections. It can remove warts and related skin tags.  There are reported cases where even modern hospitals have used strips of Papaya to treat post-operative infections when other means have failed. A Papaya extract (chemopapain) is sometimes injected into spinal discs and pinched nerves by the orthopaedic profession.


Because the Papaya latex (papain) breaks down amino acids, it is effective in removing blood stains and fat stains.


To be continued…




Web Published – August 2008

Copyright © 2008 Robert D. Brinsmead