The elephant apple, or wood apple, is a tropical acidic fruit native to Southeast Asia. The fruit is eaten in both ripe and unripe stages, and it is common in chutneys and other pickled dishes. The fruit comes into season in the fall months, depending on the region, with maturity in October and November in Malaya and a longer harvesting period, October through March, in India. The wood apple is an acquired taste: in addition to being very mealy, it has an odor that some consumers find offensive.
The elephant apple tree grows up to 25 feet (7.5 meters) tall, in tropical and subtropical regions, and it can also be found at relatively high elevations. It is a dense tree that prefers full sun or very light shade and has dark green, toothed, leathery leaves. The tree has a core of a few branches reaching up and long drooping branches returning to the earth. The bark is scaly and spined. The flowers of the tree are white to pale red in color and have a distinctive odor that many find very pleasant.
The fruit of the tree is enclosed in a hard husk, which must be cracked to get at the fruit. This can be accomplished by hurling the fruit at a hard surface or by using a hammer to crack the husk open. The elephant apple itself is brown and mealy, with astringent and resinous notes. It also has a strong smell, along with numerous small seeds.
While the fruit was originally thought of as a source of food for the poor, recent years and more mechanized harvest techniques have popularized it in Southeast Asia. The knobbly, misshapen fruits are still relatively unknown in the United States, like many Asian fruits. The wood of the elephant apple is very hard and prized for construction applications in which durable wood is needed. During the rainy season, the tree exudes a gum that is used in some parts of the world to replace gum arabic, and it appears in watercolors, inks, varnish, and other applications in which gum arabic might normally be used. Products of the tree are also used in some traditional Indian medicine, and the plant is said to be soothing to the digestion.
Should you encounter elephant apples available for purchase, look for fruit still in its outer husk. Shake it gently to see whether the fruit has become dislodged from the sides of the husk, which will indicate that the fruit is ripe. When you open the fruit, the pulp should be a rich brown in color. Elephant apple is also available canned, although it is often not perfectly ripe in that case.