Fruits, in one way or the other, are indispensable to us in our daily lives, being essential to our health. Like other fruits, the custard apple is nutritive and curative, though the fruit itself is not so very pleasant in appearance. The custard apple, or Sharifa (in Urdu) and Ramphal or Sitaphal (in Hindi), is native to the West Indies (though some trace its roots to India), and was introduced to tropical Africa in the 17th century. It is found widely on the east coast of Malaysia, Southeast Asia and the Philippines.
The fruit is round, globose, reticulated and packed with an aromatic white, sweet, pulpy matter which covers numerous hard coated black pointed seeds that are oblong in shape. When unripe, the sharifa is hard and firm. Ripening, however, makes the fruit soft and it breaks easily on touch. The ripe fruit can be enjoyed on its own or as a dessert; the fruit pulp is also used to make sherbet, ice cream, milkshake and pudding.
The custard apple’s leaves, fruit, seeds and roots have many medicinal benefits. It is a source of an extensive list of necessary nutrients: protein, fat, carbohydrates, crude fibre, ash, phosphorus, iron, carotene, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, ascorbic acid, nicotinic acid and natural sugars. It is a good antioxidant, and flushes out toxic matter from the body that can prove hazardous to health. The bark of the tree is used to treat diarrhoea and diabetes. A paste of the pounded seeds, and the juice of the leaves applied locally to the head has the power to kill head-lice (It would be advisable to avoid its contact with the eyes). The juice from the leaves is also used to dress wounds, ulcers, maggot-infested sores, and malignant tumours.
The sharifa tree is erect and branched, growing to a height of 5-10 metres. Fruiting starts within two to three years of planting and the fruit takes two to three months to ripen on the tree, blooming twice a year. It is propagated by the seed and also by grafting; fruits obtained from grafting are better in quality than from seed-planted saplings.
The custard apple is now naturalised in many tropical areas, such as the Philippines. A regular supply of water, good drainage and soil fertility are to be ensured for the cultivation of the custard apple, although it is moderately drought-resistant. It does well in low-lying, deep, rich soil, with an ample supply of water, organic matter and drainage. It also, however, has the ability to adapt itself to varied soil conditions, so the soil does not really pose a problem.
It is cultivated in many parts of India and also found growing wild in some parts of southern India. In Pakistan, the fruit is cultivated on a small scale by enterprising fruit growers for their personal consumption or marketing. In certain seasons, the fruit is heavily latched onto by mealy-bugs and maggots that make the fruit unfit for consumption or presentation to friends and relatives. The pest problem can be easily controlled, if the custard apple tree is sprayed once or twice with the recommended chemical spray by a plant protection expert before it starts blooming.
The custard apple, it will be seen, also has many economic uses. Industrially, the toxicity contained in the seeds could also be exploited to make mild insecticides to control small insect pests like bedbugs, store insects and garden pests like aphids and mites. Despite its importance, it still does not have a fruit crop status in Pakistan, although the climatic conditions are quite favourable for its cultivation in Sindh; currently it is successfully growing in and around Karachi in residential compounds and in other open places. It is understood that research on the custard apple is apace in Sindh. New and adaptable germplasm may further be imported from abroad to accelerate its ongoing research. The cultivation of a few trees in fruit orchards can be an additional source of income to the fruit- grower.