By Scott Aker
I succumbed to my weariness with winter and decided to spend a week with my cousin Barb in St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands. She knows my fondness for plants and planned several plant-related activities for me, including a visit to the St. George Village Botanical Gardens and local nurseries. One of the most memorable plant highlights was my first ever tasting of soursop, Annona muricata. I encountered this large, spiny green fruit in Hawaii many years ago, but was only able to buy it the day before we were to leave, and I couldn’t bring it home. I had tried it, even though the store clerk told me I had to let it ripen to the point that the flesh would yield when softly poked. Because it was unripe, it really had no flavor.
When I arrived, she pointed out a soursop in a wooden bowl in the kitchen. She saw that I knew the fruit, and she admonished me, like the clerk in that store in Hawaii, that we could not sample the fruit until it was very soft and mushy. She had frozen some soursop pulp from a fruit she had ripened prior to my arrival, and we scraped it into a kind of sorbet and ate that for dessert. So, I did get a delicious preview of what the fresh fruit would be like. The days went by, and I checked it daily with her. When I thought it was soft enough, she determined it was not quite there and that we would sample it tomorrow.
When the time came to eat the fruit, she asked me to come to the kitchen counter to eat it with her. There were no plates, no knife, and no spoons. I asked what utensils would be needed, and she indicated that the most authentic way to eat this delicacy was with our hands and nothing else. After we thoroughly washed our hands, she plunged hers into the fruit, splitting the skin and revealing the very juicy, soft, and fragrant contents within. She grabbed some of the pulp, which was clinging to the large black seeds, and explained that we shouldn’t eat the seeds, but instead spit them out and place them in some of the skin of the fruit for later disposal. I followed her lead, and my tastebuds instantly rejoiced at the balanced sweetness and sourness of this creamy fruit with overtones of custard, pineapple, and strawberry, all with a smooth, creamy mouth feel. We finished most of that fruit. Later, I asked her where she bought it, and she laughed and said that she picked it from a tree growing at their church.
When I went to Christmas services there with her, I saw the tree. It had many fruits on it, and many seemed to be ripe. It bore a resemblance to the pawpaw, Asimina triloba, in my own backyard. The leaves and stature of the tree were smaller than the pawpaw, but similar enough to signal their close kinship in the Annonaceae family. I thought it odd that others would not have taken these fruits from the tree, but she said that this is a very common dooryard tree on the island and most likely parishioners have trees or know neighbors who do.
A few days later, we stopped for lunch, and I decided to try the bush tea that appeared on the menu. I’d seen this on other menus, but wasn’t sure what might be in bush tea, so I had opted for iced tea instead. This menu mentioned the ingredients in the bush tea, and I noted that among other things it had soursop listed. I was hoping this meant that the tea would have the deliciously complex sweet and sour flavor of the fruit, but it did not. It had a lovely reddish pink hue and was clear. It had some sourness, no doubt from roselle, Hibiscus sabdariffa, and a complex taste that had overtones of mint and artemisia, along with other flavors that I found hard to pinpoint. I did not detect any of the fruitiness of the soursop fruit, and when I asked the staff, they told me that tea contained soursop leaves.
I was stunned by this revelation. I knew that most things, except for the larvae of the zebra swallowtail butterfly, avoid eating leaves of pawpaw and other Annonaceae because of the presence of acetogenins in the leaves, seeds, twigs, and skin of the fruits. Knowing that biochemistry tends to be similar within most plant families, I was slightly concerned that the bush tea I drank had such substances in it. I have accidentally tasted the skin of pawpaw, and I can attest to the astringency and bitterness of acetogenins.
I did not detect the bitterness in the bush tea I drank, and this prompted further investigation. I looked for recipes. I quickly found that there is no set recipe for bush tea. I read the Crucian Contessa blog post (Bailey-Roka, 2012) on bush tea and learned that it consists of plants collected on the spot with no set formula in mind. The constituents may change with the need of the day. With regard to soursop, the author states that, “If you couldn’t sleep, the leaves from the soursop tree would help you rest.” Further research revealed that one of the acetogenins that both soursop and pawpaw produce is annonacin, which is a neurotoxin. I guess a mild neurotoxin may be effective in inducing sleep when overactive nerves are in play.
My cousin also mentioned that bush tea was the Crucians’ cure for any ailment, much as our grandmother considered caraway-flavored kümmel schnapps the cure-all for our childhood ailments. We agreed that the schnapps was a miracle cure only because we quickly learned to never complain of any illness to avoid its very strong and vile flavor. She told me that such was not the case with bush tea. Many islanders consider it a key part of their health regimen and start each day with a cup or more.
Bush tea is so highly esteemed that the local health department had to advise Crucians that bush tea is not effective against viral and bacterial infections. Crucians are known for creativity in making do with local ingredients that nature provides, historically limited by the resources present on their small island. Many of the other constituents may provide vitamins and antioxidants, so they may play a positive role in keeping them healthy.
Those acetogenins have another interesting angle. They are behind most of the cancer-treatment claims behind pawpaw, soursop, and other members of the Annonaceae. Extracts of soursop have also been investigated for treatment of diabetes, ulcers, and a host of other health issues (Mutakin, 2022). While the jury is still out, medicines derived from soursop are not likely to hit the mass market, because it is very difficult to prepare drugs since acetogenins are not stable when subjected to heat. Perhaps one need not worry about drinking a hot cup of bush tea with soursop leaves used in its preparation after all. On the more worrisome side, there has been some thought that consumption of soursop fruit and bush tea may have some link to the higher than expected rate of Parkinson’s Disease present in the Caribbean.
What is most fascinating to me about soursop is what we still do not know. It has been a prized fruit cultivated long before European conquest, yet we don’t fully understand the implications of using its leaves in bush tea. Plants have much to teach us, and we have much to learn.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Photo Credits: 1) Soursop fruit, Annona muricata; 2) Author trying the ripe fruit; 3) Inside of ripe soursop; 4) Bush tea. All photos courtesy of the author.
Bailey-Roka, Tanisha. 2012. Bush tea. Accessed May 13, 2022. Available from: https://www.cruciancontessa.com/2012/12/20/bush-tea/
Mutakin, M., R. Fauziati, F. Nur Fadhilah, A. Zuhrotun, R. Amalia, et al. 2022. Pharmacological activities of soursop (Annona muricata Lin.). Molecules 27(4). Accessed May 13, 2022. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8878098/
Scott Aker is Head of Horticulture and Education at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. He authored Digging In in The Washington Post and Garden Solutions in The American Gardener.