Acai Berry - The Botanical Angle
The acai berry is called jussara in Brazil. The fruit is named after Euterpe, a muse in Greek mythology if you were to look at its botanical name which is Euterpe oleracea. The word is pronounced as aa-sai-ee and it is adapted from the Tupian word 'iwasa'. The palms on which the fruit grow are slender and they grow to a height of up to thirty metres. The leaf span can grow up to three metres. From growing wild, these acai berry palms are now being cultivated because they are in such great demand the world over. This is mainly because of the information about the health-giving benefits of the natural acai berry fruit spilling out beyond the borders of the Amazon area where for centuries it has been a fruit that has been regarded as a health food. In fact, it is thought that for centuries, the acai berry fruit had formed nearly 40% of the Amazon local people’s food.
Like certain other palm trees, the acai berry tree too used to be harvested for its hearts of palm. This means taking out the inner core of the palm and using it as a vegetable. Hearts of palms are a delicacy in the region and are used in salads as well. However, with the acai berry fruit becoming so popular and becoming a money spinner for the area, this practice has been curtailed. Once the inner core is removed, the tree dies and that would mean fewer fruit to sell.
The acai berry palm grows wild in the swamps and plains along the Amazon though today, with the huge potential of the fruit pulp, the palms are being cultivated as well. The exocarp or the skin is a green colour and it turns a dark purple when it is ripe. There are a few varieties of acai berry however, which remain green even when they are ripe. Inside the exocarp is a thin layer of mesocarp or pulp which is hardly a millimetre in thickness. Most of the fruit - over three-quarters of it - is the seed which is large. The whole fruit is rather like a huge grape, a centimetre in diameter.
The fruits hang in bunches, rather like grapes but much larger with anything up to a thousand fruit in one cluster. The acai berry fruit is harvested twice in the year. The fruit contains a lot of fats in it and because of this, it tends to spoil when exposed to air. So it has to be made into an acai berry pulp very quickly and then frozen so there is no spoilage. Only the skin and the pulp inside are used and very little acai berry pulp is collected from each fruit because of the large seed. The seed too is crushed for its oil and used for many things.
Traditionally, the acai berry palm needs the kind of soil that the Amazon riverbanks and plains around have to grow. However, today there is a concerted effort to try and cultivate the palms even far away from their natural habitat. Once, these palms grew wild but today, there are man made groves of these palms being planted to meet the huge demand for the acai berry.