With extra care, gardeners can enjoy Barbados cherry

Published 3:27 pm Monday, November 1, 2021

By Gary R. Bachman
MSU Extension Service

One of the fun gardening activities I enjoy living on the Gulf Coast is collecting and growing interesting tropical and subtropical fruit trees.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my cold-hardy avocados, and I’ve added new citrus trees to my “grove” that I will discuss in the future. But this week, I want to talk about a really interesting new addition to my collection, the Barbados cherry.

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Growing up in Michigan, I always enjoyed the season when the cherries were harvested in the northern part of the state. So, I was excited when I heard about a cherry that I could grow in my Southern home garden and landscape.

Barbados cherry is native to various islands in the West Indies in the Caribbean. It has become naturalized in southern Florida and Texas in U.S. Department of Agriculture growing zones 9b through 11. That means Barbados cherry is sensitive to low temperatures.

Mature trees can tolerate only brief periods of exposure to 28 degrees. Cold protection is required if you grow them in Mississippi, but I’m going to try my luck. My home garden is in zone 9a, so I’m going to grow mine in a big container in case I have to move it inside to avoid a bout of cold weather.

This subtropical selection has several common names besides Barbados cherry, including West Indian cherry, French cherry and, most often, acerola. And it isn’t even an actual cherry.

The small, five-petaled, light-pink flowers are very pretty and develop from early spring through fall. That means there is an almost continuous supply of fruit being produced.

The fruit are cherry-like in appearance, being round and bright red. Inside, the flesh is soft, yellowish-orange and juicy with a very tart flavor because of the high ascorbic acid content. This makes it a good source of vitamin C. The fruit also contain multiple seeds.

I’ve noticed that the ripe fruit are quite fragile, so careful handling is required when picking. Also, the leaves have tiny hairs that irritate my skin, so I’ve learned to wear protective sleeves when picking the fruit.

Growing a Barbados cherry is actually pretty basic, as they don’t need any special care other than you possibly needing to provide protection from the cold. This fruit tree grows in full sun but is also perfectly happy in partial shade.

It requires consistent moisture during the initial establishment phase. This is especially important if you grow them in a container like I do. Barbados cherries also need consistent fertilization to be productive.  I like to top-dress with Osmocote in late winter followed by water-soluble fertilizer every month. This application is easy to do when watering.

Most specialty fruit trees are available in the fall. I’ve seen Barbados cherry trees in several independent garden centers this fall, so call ahead and check on availability. They can also be sourced online from specialty nurseries.

Photo: The fruit of the Barbados cherry do look like large cherries and are excellent sources of vitamin C. Ripe fruit are quite fragile, so careful handling is required when picking (Photo by MSU Extension/Gary Bachman)