Got genips?

I was first introduced to genips one summer when my sons and I started helping Ken Wild with the archeological excavations at Cinnamon Bay. My older son, Kevin, was intrigued by the Taino pottery and shells revealed when the soil was carefully scraped and brushed away, and was eager to help sift the loose dirt to see if there were any beads or other treasures to be found. (The artifacts from the Cinnamon Bay site are now displayed in the museum building there.)

Meanwhile, my younger son had no patience for the work and tended to jump around too close to the pit. Ken graciously diverted him and put his abundant energy to use by asking him to climb a tall tree over near the building and bring him back some of the fruit. Always an enthusiastic climber, Brian quickly disappeared up in the tree. After a while there was some shaking in the high branches and clusters of green fruits that looked a bit like limes began dropping on the path.
Genip fruit     
Ken showed us how to split the leathery skin, pop the whole fruit in our mouths and suck on the fleshy pink pulp (which doesn’t easily come off the seed). The seed is so big it takes up most of the space inside. The pulp is pretty tart, but sort of sweet too.
Genip fruit, pulp and seed              
It is likely that genip fruits, which are native to South America, were brought to the islands by pre-Columbian settlers. Besides sucking the pulp, they roasted the seeds to eat like nuts, and also used the juice as a dye.

Mature genip trees can grow up to 100 feet tall, though most of the ones here are not that big. They have smooth, grayish bark which is often blotchy-looking because it is mottled with lichen.
Genip tree by Catherineberg ruins with distinctive markings 
Eleanor Gibney noted that genip trees tend to live a long time. Some on St. John may even be 500 years old, dating back to Taino times. Many of the ones she climbed as a child are still around and remain relatively unchanged.

The overall number of genip trees on St. John has been increasing though. They have spread widely because their seeds are dispersed by birds and bats, as well as people spitting out seeds, and because they can survive in droughts and a variety of salty, windy ecological conditions. In parts of the island these trees have invaded the remaining areas of diverse native forest, crowding out other growth with their abundant saplings.

Cheryl Magdaleno, who has been participating in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship’s Tree Appreciation Project, recently showed me how to identify a genip by its leaf structure. It has four leaflets arranged in two pairs on a stalk that attaches to the tree. Along the stalk she pointed out distinctive thin leaf-like structures – like wings. I was very excited to learn about the leaves, since the method of trying to identify genip trees by looking for mottled bark was not working very well for me.
Young genip leaf showing 'wings' on the leaf stalk 
I recently mentioned this information about genip leaves to Jessa Buchalter, including the part about the wings. She promptly went to a tree by her family’s house and came back with a bunch of genip fruits, along with some of the leaves from that tree. They were definitely not winged.  Maybe the leaf wings help young trees get started, while the older fruiting trees don’t need them anymore.

Like papayas, genips have male and female trees. Male flowers producing pollen and female flowers producing seeds generally grow on different genip trees. This is somewhat unusual - most types of trees with sexual reproduction either have both male and female flowers on the same tree, or flowers containing both male and female parts.

One advantage of having male and female flowers on different trees is that it ensures cross-pollination and increases genetic diversity. But what if there aren’t enough trees of the opposite sex in the neighborhood? I worry about that when I look at my lonely young papaya tree, but the genips don’t seem to be suffering from social isolation. Also bees are attracted to their flowers and can travel pretty far as they search for sweet nectar.

Ordinarily genip trees flower between April and June, and produce fruit in the summer. Some trees are fruiting now though. Most likely that they were affected by last year’s drought and delayed their flowering until after the November rains. So we got genips this winter.