All About Cannonball Fruit in India
The cannonball tree is sacred in India, as it symbolizes the sanctified phallus and the serpent protector of elemental sexual energy. It’s easy to understand the origin of this symbolism by taking one look at the tree: The thin, brown vines wrapping up and around the trunk resemble snake-like undulations, and the flower petals have the outline a snake’s hood. The tree’s other names, “nagalinga” and “shivalingam,” reiterate the tree’s symbolism. Its moniker of the cannonball tree has a much simpler explanation, as the sound of the fruit hitting the ground is comparable to a cannon firing.
Note: The Caribbean cannonball fruit is nothing like the Indian fruit described herein. While the Caribbean version is like a breadfruit, this version—Couropita guianensis—has a gelatinous, alien-like appearance similar to passion fruit. When exposed to oxygen, the cannonball’s flesh turns bluish-purple, and it has a multitude of black seeds within the gelatinous pulp.
Origin of Cannonball Fruit
As explained in the book, “Edible Medicinal and Nonmedicinal Plants,” cannonball tree is native to South America, specifically the Amazon Basin, Suriname and Guyana. Its binomial name, guianensis indicates “of Guyana.” Some botanists claim the fruit is native to India—with the country’s recorded specimens dating 3,000 year ago, it’s difficult to counter this claim.
Most history books explain that the interactions between the Old and New World first occurred because European voyagers transferred plants and cultural knowledge between continents. The book, “Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World,” refutes this narrative. Along with approximately 45 other specimens, they point to the cannonball tree’s presence in both ancient India and South America as proof that the hemispheres had connections with the other long before the voyages of Columbus, Marco Polo, Magellan and Cortez.
Couroupita guianensis is also called the “sala tree,” but so are two others—Cyathea spinulosa, which is a fern-like tree, and Shorea robusta. This causes some confusion because it’s not known which “sal tree” holds the honor as Lord Buddha’s place of birth and death. Though Shorea robusta is the most likely candidate, cannonball trees still linger around Buddhist temples in India and Sri Lanka.
Today, countries with cannonball trees scattered through their warm, tropical cities include Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Hawaii, nations of the Caribbean, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador.
Availability of Cannonball Fruit in India
Cannonball trees grow in the humid, low elevations of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Cannonball fruit is not cultivated commercially, as the fruit is practically inedible and its wood isn’t fit for carpentry. Its lack of cultivation is probably a good thing—like coconuts, falling cannonball fruits have injured many heads.
Here’s a video of the tree:
Where to find Cannonball Fruit in India
Flowering cannonball trees with their bright, pinkish flowers illuminate landscapes across the southern states of India. If not guarding the entrance of Shiva temples, they can be found outside of apartment complexes, office buildings, and the occasional park. Urban developers shy away from planting the fruits along highways and parking lots, as the falling fruits pose a small threat to people and cars alike.
Specific sightings of the tree include the Trivandrum zoo, along Chennai’s Pycrofts Garden road, and Mumbai’s Maharashtra Nature Park.
Checking for Ripeness in Cannonball Fruit
Ripe cannonballs fall thunderously to the ground. Fruits will not continue to ripen once picked, and thus, waiting is essential. As the fruit ages, the exterior becomes wavy and dented.
Cannonball’s ripe, exposed flesh resembles durian with its pungent, acrid, notorious stench. The mid-1800’s book, “Encyclopedia of Geography,” describes cannonball fruit as such: “in the perfectly ripe state, it exceeds whatever is filthy, stinking and abominable in nature.” It goes on to describe that when extracts were preserved in rum, the plant’s odor made the apartment nearly inhabitable.
Though humans detest the smell, its putrid aroma serves a powerful evolutionary purpose. When the fruit cracks, the odor invites nearby animals to come and devour its flesh. The animals then spread the seeds via their feces, and the plant’s evolution continues.
Taste of Cannonball Fruit
Cannonball fruit is astringent, bitter, and earthy. Its reputation as a famine fruit is well deserved given its fetid, unpalatable taste. A drink of unripe cannonball fruit supposedly wards off fever, and Amazonian shamans eat the fruit periodically. For others, however, the under ripe fruit might be poisonous and could cause an allergic reaction. Indeed, eating unripe fruits causes a burning, tingling sensation on the tongue and lips. Before eating, lick the smallest portion of the fruit and wait a few minutes: Do not continue eating if a burning sensation develops on the mouth.
Other accounts cite the fruit as bland. Another book, “Edible Medicinal and Nonmedicinal Plants” states the pulp is “vinous (resembling wine), white, acid, and not disagreeable.”
Nutritional Value of Cannonball Fruit
Cannonball’s known compounds are sugar, tartaric acid, citric acid, malic, citric hydrazide, ymalic hydrazide, capric acid, lycopin, and gum.
Health Benefits of Cannonball Fruits
TK Lim describes a few of cannonball’s folk medicinal properties in his book, “Edible Medicinal and Nonmedicinal Plants.” Benefits listed include:
--Curing skin diseases
--Acting as an antimicrobial, antifungal, antiseptic and analgesic
--Treating colds and stomachaches
Chicken farmers also feed cannonball pulp as a vaccination against respiratory illnesses, and various livestock eat cannonball pulp as foodstuff.
The scientific community has validated the following medicinal properties of the tree:
--Indian researchers found antidepressant qualities in the tree’s methanolic extracts.
--Cannonball tree extracts have antibacterial activity against pathogens such as E. coli, Bacillus and Staphyloccous. Fruit extracts also possess antimicrobial activity.
--Researchers in Tamil Nadu found that the flower extracts showed potent anthelmintic (antiworm and antiparasite) activities
--According to the work conducted by Brazilian researchers, the tree’s leaves act as pain-numbing agent.
--Some cannonball tree extracts were patented based on their potential to protect skin from UV damage, keep hair and skin healthy, and ward off signs of ageing
How to Open/Cut Cannonball Fruit
If the fruit hasn’t cracked, open it by whacking a machete against its dense skin. Or, take a screwdriver and crack it open by hammering it into the fruit. Its tough, durable shell may not open easily, but it’s one reason why villagers use them as bowls. Expect greater difficulty opening a cannonball fruit than carving the toughest of pumpkins.
Underripe cannonball fruits keep for a few weeks to a month at room temperature. Ripe cannonball fruits, however, should be consumed over the course of a few days. Otherwise, the palpable stench may become difficult to manage.
Cannonball Recipe Ideas and Uses:
--Known accounts include preserving and fermenting the fruit into wine
--Similar to breadfruits, locals have buried the fruit as a preservation method
--Natives of Guyana make animal feed from the pulp.
One animal adored eating cannonball’s flesh: the long-extinct giant sloth. Today, American wild pigs are some of the fruit’s greatest admirers.
Nagalinga, tope gola (Hindi)
Lingada mara (Kannada)
Kaman gola (Bengali)