In the Garden: Miracle fruit
Miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) is truly a miraculous plant with the amazing ability to actually transform your taste buds! Originating in West Africa, the berries from this plant have been used for centuries in Africa to sweeten many of the sour foods that make up the majority of their diet. This effect is due to the molecular structure of the plant itself. Eat this berry then eat a lemon and what you get is the flavor of lemon candy or lemonade. While the berry has a low sugar content on its own, it does contain a glycoprotein molecule with some trailing carbohydrate chains called miraculin. These miraculin cause sour foods like lemons and limes to taste sweet.
The reason for this reaction for the science geeks out there is that the miraculin molecule binds to the tongue’s taste buds, causing sour foods to taste sweet. At neutral pH, miraculin binds and blocks the receptors, but at low pH (resulting from ingestion of sour foods) miraculin binds proteins and becomes able to activate the sweet receptors, resulting in the perception of a sweet taste. This effect can last up to 30 minutes or until the protein is washed away by saliva.
The plant itself, is a small rather twiggy bush with small lighter green leaves and bright red berries about the size of a jellybean. It grows very slowly and may only reach a height of 4 to 6 feet in a container or more if planted in a natural environment. It thrives in the warm climate and high humidity of Florida but does not like our alkaline soil. In order for this plant to be a successful fruit producer, it needs rich, well-drained soil with lots of peat moss and micronutrients added, making this one of the best plants to maintain in a container. Even a smaller plant only 12 to 15 inches tall can produce fruit and with the right care, will flower and fruit twice a year, maybe more if you are lucky. The plant itself may not be a beauty, but it sure makes for a good party trick. Surprise your friends and guests with a sample of the surprising miracle fruit.
This column is a joint effort by all at In The Garden, Sanibel’s local garden center, located at 3889 Sanibel Captiva Road, Sanibel Island, Florida.