Solanum mammosum (Udder Fruit)
The striking fruits above belong to Solanum mammosum a lesser known, but distinctive, ornamental garden plant. These quirky fruit have earned this plant an equally quirky array of names, most of which are a result of the deviant immagination of mankind when they first lay eyes upon the fruit. Some of these names include Nipplefruit, Titty Fruit, Apple Of Sodom, Cow’s Udder, Udder Fruit, Super Duper Titty Fruit, Fox Face (in Japan) and Five Fingered Eggplant (in China). Even the species epiphet mammosum is in reference to the fruit of this plant and literally means ‘having breasts’. Solanum mammosum is native to South America but has an extended naturalised range that includes parts of Central America and the Caribbean.
The leaves and stems of Solanum mammosum are hairy and spiny and are quite similar in appearance to eggplant, although this plant grows much larger up to the size of a small tree. Solanum mammosum is a perennial in the wild and eventually becomes woody near the base of the trunk, but under cultivation it will often die after fruiting or become leggy and is usually grown as an annual because of this. The flowers are puple with a thin white stripe down each petal and yellow anthers resembling a large tomato flower but with the colouration of an eggplant flower.
The bizarre, globular fruits that follow resemble both a nipple having a large central lobe at the tip and an udder having multiple smaller lobes around the base of the fruit. The fruits turn from green to a bright, golden yellow when ripe and can grow to about 3 inches (7.6 cm) in diameter. Although the Nipple Fruit plant resembles a large eggplant bush, don’t be fooled as the fruit is actually toxic and should not be eaten.
Despite its toxicity or perhaps because of it as is the case for many medicinal plants, the Nipple Fruit has several medicinal and cultural uses. Hunters in Trinidad crush the leaves of the plant to extract the juice which they then rub on their feet to rid them of the fungus which causes Athlete’s Foot. There are reports of this plant being used to treat restlessness, although I cannot find the method of preparation in regards to this treatment. The juice of the fruit can also form a lather and can be used as a detergent, although one for use on clothing rather than the dirty dishes I’d imagine.
People in Hong Kong and Taiwan import the stems and fruit of the Udder Fruit from growers in South America to use in Christmas tree like household plant displays during Chinese New Year celebrations. The bright golden coloured fruits are put on display as a harbinger of future success. They are particular popular during the Year of the Ox celebrations due the resemblance of the fruit to bovine udders. The word finger in Cantonese is similar to the word sons, leading to the superstitious belief that the number of lobes of the fruit represents the number of male offspring that will born into the household. Another superstition is that the number of lobes represents the number of successive generations that will live in harmony under the same roof, with a larger number a good sign of the future longevity of the family.