The Barbados Cherry is a member of the family of plants called Malpighiaceae. This shrub is native to Central America, northern South America, south Texas and the West Indies. It is also known as acerola or West Indian Cherry, and is prized for its bright red, edible fruit. The fruit is renowned for its extremely high vitamin C content as well as numerous other health benefit qualities.
There is some dispute over the botanical name of the true Barbados Cherry. In some instances, it is called Malpighia glabra. This variety, however, has smaller fruit and bigger leaves than the more common Malpighia punicfolia. Both varieties can grow to about 20 feet (6 meters) tall, but can be kept pruned to a shorter, more manageable height. Found only in warm climates, it will only survive where the temperature does not go below freezing. It thrives in most areas where citrus trees grow.
This shrub is semi-evergreen, and often has several trunks within one plant. The small flowers are pale pink and bloom in umbels of two or more. It may produce flowers several times a year, or year round in some areas. For the best flower and fruit production, it should be exposed to as much direct sunlight as possible. Plants will usually flower and bear fruit the second year, but will not typically produce optimum results until at least the third year.
The fruit of the Barbados Cherry has been found to have approximately 65 times the vitamin C content of oranges. Just 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of cherries can contain from 2,000 to 4,500 milligrams, and one single cherry contains enough to meet the minimum daily requirements. This makes the Barbados Cherry the second highest natural source of vitamin C — only rose hips contain more in a single fruit.
In addition, Barbados Cherry is very high in vitamin A, containing about 12,500 IU per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of cherries. This is the same amount found in carrots and is eight times the levels found in a glass of orange juice. It is also a good source of iron, magnesium, calcium, niacin, potassium, phosphorus, and thiamine.
Barbados Cherries have been found to contain several antioxidants, including carotenoids and flavonoids. They are also high in phenolic acids. Regularly consuming fruits high in these antioxidants may help ward off heart disease and cancer. It may also strengthen the immune system and improve skin problems.
The fruit has a taste similar to the crab apple and is best when eaten fresh. They do not store well, however, because the fruit is easily bruised. Freezing is not an option, as the fruit tends to fall apart when thawed. It is frequently made into jellies, juices, sherbets, and pie fillings.