My maternal grandmother Mamía had an acerola tree in her backyard. It was planted by my grandfather in the 1950s, along with a lemon tree and other plants. I have a few memories of eating fruit from this tree and still after many years acerolas continue to be one of my favorite fruits.
Recently, Elisa Gonzalez, who is a fellow Puerto Rican scholar had her article, “Feeding the Colonial Subject: Nutrition and Public Health in Puerto Rico, 1926-1952”, published in El Centro journal. This wonderfully researched piece opens with the following quote,
“We believe there should be an extensive campaign promoting the cultivation of acerola trees and encouraging Puerto Rican families to consume the fruit frequently. This would be a low cost alternative to ameliorate the vitamin C deficiency suffered by most of our fellow citizens.”
This quote is from Dr. Conrado Ansejo in 1947. Dr. Ansenjo, a Puerto Rican chemical engineer, is widely recognized for his role in discovering the high content of vitamin C in acerola. This among many other accomplishments resulted in the library of the University of Puerto Rico Medical Science Campus being named after him.
Scientifically known as Malpighia emarginata and also commonly known as West Indian Cherry, the fruit contains about 1000-3000 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams. This concentration is quite high compared to oranges’ 50mg per 100 grams. Why the emphasis on vitamin C? At the time, Puerto Rico was suffering from a high incidence of scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency causing overall weakness, skin hemorrhages, gum disease and anemia. Scurvy along with other vitamin deficiencies has been eradicated in Puerto Rico thanks to advances in food science and technology along with public health campaigns.
Was the tree planted in Mamía’s backyard the result of a public health campaign? Still, having acerola trees is commonplace in Puerto Rico along with having lemon and avocado trees, among others. Additionally, my grandfather was an agricultural engineer who might even have known or worked with Dr. Asenjo at the time.
There are a few things I make an effort to take back with me during visits to Puerto Rico: A “six pack” (at least) of mallorcas from Pepín, a bottle of Ron Barrilito, and a jar of locally produced acerola jam. More than for its nutritional value, acerola is a source of childhood memories from my grandmother’s home who passed away more than a decade ago. It has been wonderful to be reminded of her home through a piece of scholarly work, which has led me to learn more about my own family history, through this remembrance of the acerola tree.