scientific name Mimusops elengi was coined by the Swedish gentleman Linnaeus
in 1753. Greek ‘mimo’ and ‘-opsis’ simply means ‘resembling a monkey’,
referring to the flowers’ resemblance with some monkey faces. ‘Elengi’ is
the Malayalam word for this tree (spoken in Kerala, India). I think ‘elengi’
should be adopted by the English language too, since calling every plant
with red small fruits ‘cherry’ will hide the actual wealth of life on Earth.
The flowers of the Indian cherry
(Mimusops elengi, Sapotaceae) have a graceful perfume. Now, the flowers have
turned into fruits. At present the red fruits ripen at Dokmai Garden and at
parks and temples around Chiang Mai. They do attract birds which bring
movement and music to your garden, but do they appeal to a gourmand?
The fruits have a dry, astringent and tasteless yellow flesh with a blackish
and flattened stone so typical of Sapotaceae. However, as with bland
mushrooms, one by one they seem quite disappointing, but mixing many species
together may create a lovely new concert of flavours and textures. Thereby
Indian cherry not only provides an evergreen shade, fragrant blooms and
ornamental bird food, but may also serve as an ingredient in a jungle
Being an Ayurvedic ingredient the fruit has been attributed medicinal
properties, but that field is such a jungle of more or less reliable studies
I let the reader find out for himself.
Saplings can be hard to tell apart. The leaf of Indian cherry (centre) may
look identical with Benjamin fig (Ficus benjamina, Moraceae, left) or
eaglewood (Aquilaria crassna, Thymelaeaceae).
Although they belong to three different plant families, evolution has
resulted in similar evergreen leaves (glabrous, v-shaped and with tapering
ends) adapted to escape water accumulation during heavy rainstorms, which
may rip limbs or overturn the tree due to excess weight.
The benjamin fig has a rich, white latex, the Indian cherry has a modest
unclear and more watery latex and eaglewood almost no latex, although a
clear sap might be seen. Biting the leaves (chemical analysis) is sometimes
a good way of telling plants apart, but the jungle rule of thumb is never to
bite an unknown leaf with a white latex, as they may belong to terribly
toxic species of the rubber tree family (Euphorbiaceae) or frangipani family
(Apocynaceae). Indian cherry leaves are acidic and astringent, eaglewood
leaves are bitter and the leaves of the benjamin fig are tasteless and
The slow-growing Indian cherry should be grown in full sun and allowed to
follow the monsoon seasons although watered when thirsty. It is frequently
attacked by Dendrophthoe parasites, possibly since birds like the fruits of
both host and parasite. Being slow-growing implies a hard wood, and indeed
it is magnificent but rare.