From the Quisqualis Website
by Donna McVicar Cannon ©1992,2006

The Old Sweet Lime Trick
April Fool's Day can be Any Day

This article first appeared in: Tropical Fruit News April 1992 Vol. 26 No. 4

Illustration by Donna McVicar Cannon
Fig. 1

It can happen to anyone, all over the world. Once it could happen only to those who lived, or visited, tropical areas. But if certain people have their way, the number of unwitting victims will grow yearly by leaps and bounds. Anyone with an interest in unusual fruiting plants will become suspect; the temptation for perpetuating the hoax will become overpowering and even those stalwart folks who would never think of playing practical jokes upon their visitors will give in to the temptation.

Let's hear from an habitual perpetrator, in his own words... "when showing visitors around the property they say, what are those little red oval berries? Are they edible?' So we give them a taste and admit they are pretty insignificant. Then when we get to a lime tree we announce. This is a special Jambolana Lime—very sweet!' Disbelief is in their eyes, because they've got lime trees in their gardens, and they can't see any difference—and there isn't! So we snip off a fat green lime, cut it in half and say. Try it.' There's a tentative lick, then an incredulous smile, then more licks. Everyone wants to taste it. 'Wonderful, where did you get it? Did you grow it from seed? Or was it grafted? Will you let us have some scions? Will you make a marcotte for us?' Etc., and so the hoax goes on." And so Jack Rolley of Jambolana Farm in Tahiti boasts of his habitual duplicity.

Large Leaved Miracle Fruit
Fig. 2
Large Leaved Miracle Fruit

Even a founder of the Rare Fruit Council, William Whitman, admits to falling for the sweet lime trick. In 1952, he was being given a tour of the Panama Canal Zone Summit Gardens by the Director, W. R. Lindsay, when they encountered a five foot bush, covered with small, dark green leaves and attractive red fruit about the size of olives. Sampling a couple of the berries, Mr. Whitman found them rather nondescript, and they moved to the next specimen, a Key lime which Director Lindsay asserted was a wonderful and very rare sweet lime. After some urging to sample it, Mr. Whitman tasted this lime and found it absolutely living up to its advance billing—incredibly sweet and delicious. Only after eating several more of these delightful sweet limes did he finally ask for information. Has this happened to you, or someone you know? I certainly hope so—because that kind of magical, although admittedly duplicitous, experience is one not easily forgotten. And it should make you into an enthusiastic devotee—although NOT of the "sweet lime", which still, at this writing, dwells amongst unicorns and other mythical beasts—but of the small red berries that are the real heroes of this tale.

Large Leaved Miracle Fruit
Fig. 3
Large Leaved Miracle Fruit

Members of the Rare Fruit Council should be much more familiar than the general public with these red berries, which are most commonly called the Miracle Fruit; and seldom was a common name more correct! No one knows for sure when the first person made the discovery about the taste reversing properties... but it was probably many centuries ago. The plant was discovered in West Africa, where the native diet revolved around a few basic foods, none of which were remotely sweet. Their soups and porridges were sour, their crude cornbread sour, their fermented palm beer and wine extremely sour. Sweeteners were at a premium. Can you imagine the delight of these people when someone ate a few red berries and later ate a meal of these foods, to find everything suddenly sweet and very palatable? One hopes that the connection was made right away!

This practice was first reported in 1725 by the French explorer Des Marchais, although he made no recorded attempt to name the fruit or describe it fully. This West African wonder was not botanically identified and named until the middle of the 19th century as Synsepalum dulcificum, a member of the Sapotaceae family, relative of the sapodilla (Manilkara zapota). In the Pharmaceutical Journal, Vol. Xl, published in 1852, Dr. W. F. Daniell called it the "miraculous berry". He was stationed at an outpost in West Africa, and described the taste-reverse properties in great detail. Contemporary botanists were very naturally excited by his writings and possibilities for commercial exploitation were eagerly discussed.

A great deal of time, thought, planning, dreaming, and money have been spent on that very idea during the last century and a half. Yet the general public is still unaware of this rare fruit and the effect it could have on enhancing the quality of their lifestyle.

One of the first problems encountered was that the berries are perishable, and once picked, last but a few days. In their native habitat, two large crops are available yearly, each after a rainy season. The mature bushes, which can reach 20 feet, usually have a few fruits hanging around all year. Methods of shipment in the last century were not conducive to marketing the fruits and cultivation of the plants in other countries was also unsuccessful. However, a few very rare plants made it around the globe—such as to Summit Gardens, Plant Introduction Station in Panama, where one hundred years later, their encounter with one very dedicated fruit enthusiast has made all the difference for their future in the diets of people everywhere.

Leaf habit
Fig. 5
Leaf habit

Space does not permit many details in the most extensive—and most expensive—endeavour to introduce and market the miracle fruit. Please refer to the magazine, "Horticulture", January 1985, where author Nathaniel Tripp more fully delves into this mid 1970's entrepreneurial disaster, involving dedicated dreamers, horticultural expertise, brilliant marketing ideas, millions of dollars (private, corporate, and governmental), thorough research, countless hours in laboratories, greenhouses, fields and offices, industrial espionage, propaganda and frightener techniques, thousands of miles of air travel, foot-weary jungle exploration, shrewd native peoples... in short, everything needed for a Hollywood block buster!

In a nutshell, although the miracle fruit had been proven to be absolutely and totally safe in the most thorough testing done on every thing from guinea pigs to school children, the company set up to market the fruit and its taste reversing property, Miraculin, was denied crucial FDA approval. This was quite ironically, on the eve of its major introduction into the marketplace, and after ongoing communication with the Food and Drug Administration that had always seemed positive and optimistic.

Consumers are rarely cognizant of the life-and-death struggle going on in the food industry; and nowhere is the battle more bloody than when it comes to sweetening our food. Cane sugar alone is a multi-billion-dollar, international industry. And when it comes to artificial sweeteners... we are talking major war! The lovely and graceful branches of Synsepalum dulcificum are hardly material to fashion weapons of battle. But for a while there, diabetics, dentists, the overweight, children and all of us who crave our sweets with no retribution were very close to a major improvement in lifestyle.

There are no artificial sweeteners proven absolutely safe. (Although THEY are FDA-approved.) They are used
with fingers crossed. Sugar and other "natural" sweeteners are hardly to be considered as food with no ill effects. Hundreds of pounds per person are consumed yearly in more foods that we can suspect or easily detect. A teaspoonful in every tablespoonful of ketchup, for example!

Fig. 6

Anyone with knowledge of diabetes will comprehend the power of sugar in the diet, with the dangers of this disease to include blindness, stroke, dizziness, blackouts, coma, painful neuropathy, kidney failure, amputation and death. Ask a diabetic about the difficulty of balancing—or detecting— sugar in his diet; an imbalance can prove to have disastrous results. Ask any little kid in the dentist's chair about the sugar that caused his cavities. Ask any one of us "civilized" folks who could stand to lose a few pounds about the difficulty of resisting the onslaught of advertising designed to make us eat sugar in some form or the other. Studies have shown human beings crave and need sugar from earliest infancy. We need it for growth and energy. But only up to a point—most of us, being human, overindulge; and thereby pay the price.

Fruit close-up
Fig. 7
Fruit close-up

Life is too short, and too full of woe, to deny ourselves ice cream. (NOTE: To fully appreciate ice cream, of course, never eat it while depressed and standing in front of the open freezer. Try to make it to the beach to eat with a loved one while watching the sun rise or set. This is the only proper way to eat the very best foods.) There is no perfect solution to every problem; but surely the miracle fruit grows upon this planet for a reason: to help us live a sweeter life without suffering dire consequences.

A Miraculous Modification

The oft asked question, is naturally: What causes the miracle? Just as the desire to take commercial advantage of this berry has caused numerous hopeful experiments, science has also endeavored to learn the secret. It took many years, much research and accumulated knowledge and thorough scientific procedures to finally isolate the principle.

In the early 1960's, the makers of the seasoning powder Ac'cent the International Minerals and Chemical Corporation, (doesn't that sound tasty?) spent a year of concentrated effort trying to isolate the active ingredient but were basically unsuccessful. It was felt that larger quantities of the fresh fruit would have expedited their work. In 1964 their researchers stated, "the quality of the miracle fruit-induced sweetness is unexcelled... (and) more desirable than any of the known natural or synthetic sweeteners".

At Florida State University in Tallahassee, a professor of biophysics. Dr. Lloyd Beidler, began his studies of miracle fruit in the late 1950's. Together with Dr. Kenzo Kurihara, he successfully isolated the active principle, publishing their results in "Science", Vol. 161, September 20, 1968. Research performed independently in the Netherlands under the sponsorship of the Unilever Company culminated in the same year. It was found that a glycoprotein causes the taste-modification effect, a giant, 'macro-molecule' with a molecular weight of 44/000. The size of this molecule made it difficult, if not impossible, to synthesize it. This was one of the reasons I. M. C. had determined that the miracle fruit had no real commercial potential; vast plantations would have been necessary to supply enough fruit for the large scale production they envisioned.

Drs. Beidler and Kurihara had access to a sufficient number of fresh berries, which were grown in a greenhouse at the university. The miracle fruits were stored in the deep freeze until needed; 300 at a time were used to make a potent solution through standard scientific procedures. Through their thorough tests, they discovered that the taste-modifying activity was destroyed by heat, or when exposed to organic solvents, and was greatly reduced by exposure to pH above 12.0 or below 2.5 at room temperature. Situations with a pH of 3.7 and temperature of 4°C caused the activity to remain stable for one month.

It was also concluded that the protein was basic, and contains no other protein within the active component. It does have bound to it two sugar molecules; the active principle therefore contains a small amount of sugar—6.7%, which was determined not to be an impurity. This is what makes the active principle of S. dulcificum a glycoprotein. Glycoproteins are known to be completely innocent of any toxicity and are readily metabolized by the body.

The active principle does not itself have a sweet taste, or any noticeable taste. Placing a quantity in the mouth together with a sour substance initially tastes sour, but will slowly change to a sweet taste as the protein binds gradually to the receptors of the taste buds, modifying their function. Eating more than one fruit does not increase the intensity of the modification.

Miracle fruit
Fig. 8
Miracle fruit

Miracle Fruit Flowers

Other research, by Dr. Linda Bartoshuk on behalf of the U. S. Army, was begun in 1966 at their laboratories in Natick, Massachusetts. Dr. Bartoshuk's specialty was the psychology of taste; her interest was in the miracle fruit's military potential. Since the fruit could make such barely palatable foods as those consumed in West Africa into culinary delights, it seemed logical that Army food could also stand similar improvement. After years of exhaustive research, she read a paper in 1970 at the Army Research Conference in West Point, that was very positive in its support of miracle fruit. Thorough analysis concluded that no toxic heavy metals were present. Huge quantities of miracle fruit concentrate- 3,000 times ordinary human consumption — were proven to cause absolutely no ill effects. (In fact, the health of their laboratory animals was improved by miracle fruit consumption!) Foods such as vegetables, meats and others that were not usually sour, were not affected, although in some cases the flavor of vegetables did improve. It was believed that some foods had flavors which were previously masked, and were beautifully brought out by the miracle fruit's principle. This effect would last for at least an hour—some variation seemed to depend upon how long the fruit was held in the mouth before eating other foods (possibly due to how well the glycoprotein coated the taste buds). Until saliva eventually hydrolyzed the glycoprotein, acidic foods would continue to taste sweet as the sweet receptors continued to "fire" by exposure to sour foods. This has been known to last 18 hours in rare cases. No aftertaste was ever reported; although other flavors were slightly enhanced, such as the degree of saltiness.

It should be noted here that it was also proven beyond doubt that the central nervous system is not affected by the miracle fruit, which was a concern of the FDA, which was also fearful that children could be harmed by the dulling of their natural taste defenses, allowing them to consume harmful substances. Small children are most frequently poisoned by aspirin; miraculin was tested and proven NOT to mask its characteristically bitter taste. Organic acids- especially citric acid—are the substances that are modified to the greatest degree. Battery acid will NOT become a tasty drink.

Large leaved Miracle Fruit
Fig. 9
Large leaved Miracle Fruit

Cultivation: History and Requirements

David Fairchild, renowned botanical explorer, who introduced thousands of important plants to this country, also encountered this phenomenal fruit while visiting an agricultural experiment station in Cameroon in 1919. He consumed a number of the berries, but admittedly did not pay attention to the tale of their properties told him by his native guide. An hour later he was back on his yacht, refreshing himself with a German beer, which tasted unnaturally sweet. Remembering the story, he immediately sampled a lemon, to find it as sweet as a honeyed orange. Naturally, he realized the importance of this plant and gathered all the seeds he could find. He eventually made four introductions, up until 1939, into the United States. Unfortunately, none of the plants survived for very long.

Actually, one of the many virtues of miracle fruit is its ease of cultivation — although, like any plant, it politely requests that you learn its likes and it dislikes before inviting it into your home or garden. Those early failed attempts to introduce it into the United States were certainly not due to neglect, as they took place at the U.S.D.A. Plant Introduction Station, Chapman Field, on Old Cutler Road in Miami. Bill Whitman was the first to grow it successfully here. The previous specimens had probably died due to being planted in our alkaline limestone based soils, according to Dr. Robert J. Knight, Jr., research horticulturist now at Chapman Field. Whitman's seedlings were sprouted in acidic peat moss and later planted out in black hammock soil with a pH of 6.4. These plants seem to live for acid—thriving in it, and then converting it!

Some plants seem to have more, for lack of a better word, "personality" than others. Consider—its fruit enhances your diet with the healthful benefits of sweetness without calories its beauty adds to your environment and its eagerness to supply you with its bounty will certainly charm you. The miracle fruit is unusually well suited for container growth (once you are aware of its need for acidity). Bill Whitman has seen a seedling all of 7" tall and a cutting of 4" bearing fruit upon their youthful twigs.

In Florida, Robert Newcomb's nursery, in 1960, was the first to sell miracle fruit plants, and seeds for $1.00 each. They were descendants of Bill Whitman's original Panama discovery. Christopher Whitman had a nice little cottage industry going as a youngster; his father told me that he (Bill) would eat 100 berries at a time to clean them, so that Chris could sell them to Fred Saleet of The Banana Tree in Pennsylvania at 25 cents each. If ever there lived a person who was an example of the benefits—and harmlessness—of the miracle fruit, it's Mr. Whitman, having consumed countless thousands of the berries since 1958 and doing just fine! (William (Bill) F. Whitman, Jr passed away in his sleep at the age of 92 in 2007. He read and enjoyed this article and commented that it was the best of any article on miracle fruit that he had ever seen. - web editor)

Although not thought to be frost tolerant, they have been observed growing in unprotected locations as far north as Tampa. It is not a fast growing plant, which is another benefit for those who would like to grow it in their house or greenhouse. It thrives under warm temperatures, and high humidity, like most descendants of rainforest denizens.

There are never any rules in the natural world that are absolute. There are too many variables. In the 1970's, for example, during the big push to bring miracle fruit into the daily diet of Americans, the best individual plants were sought out and bred for their characteristics—fastest growth, highest yield, biggest fruit, as horticulturists always seek to do. What happened to those thousands of well bred S. dulcificums in those plantations in Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Dahomey is not known by this writer. Bill Whitman has bred a larger-leaved variety that thrives in his Bal Harbour grove. Dr. Robert McNaughton has a "giant" miracle fruit in Coconut Grove garden (refers to the taste of the fruit, not the tree itself.)

Grow The Dream

It's just a shrub, with a varying number of small red fruits. And at one time I was skeptical of its potential, its safety, its practical use in everyday life. I am now convinced that this is a fruit that is truly a gift to humanity; not a perfect solution, but a way to improve our diets and our health with intelligent usage. I was glad to discover that research is still going on, especially in Japan, where Dr. Kurihara and his wife are guiding the development of sugar replacements, using the miracle fruit, among other plants.

This plant deserves to become much more than a charming oddity in our gardens, a practical joke to play upon our visitors. It deserves our respect for its potential to revitalize our dietary habits. It does takes a bit of re-education to change our wicked, sugary ways and fully utilize the unique properties of the miracle fruit. Modem day life demands everything be ultra convenient; using the miracle fruit has been not as easy as many of us would have wished. One scenario involves eating a single fruit before the morning grapefruit, a la Bill Whitman; or to fully enjoy the delights of a bowl of tart strawberries. However, part of the problem of utilization involves sweetening coffee and soft drinks. It will make beer taste like lemonade! But lemons taste like lemon sherbet.

It is unfortunate that heat destroys the active principle, so that canning, jams, preserves, baking, drying, etc. are impossible. The fruits can be held for a short period of time by refrigeration or freezing. There was a powdered concentrate available briefly in the 1970's, produced by that now-defunct Mirlin-Corporation, that would've made life a lot sweeter and less fattening for us all with great convenience. We have the FDA to thank for its absence.

It is certainly within the realm of possibility that every household could be graced with at least one miracle fruit plant. A 10 inch plant is happy in a one gallon pot, in a medium containing peat moss or other acidic well drained soil mixture. One that size will flower and fruit at least twice a year, probably more frequently. Eventual size depends on where the plant is grown; a plant 10 years old might be only 3 feet tall. Bill Whitman's 20 foot beauty is about 25 years old. He has harvested 850 fruits at one time. (See TFNews, February 1992, page 2 for a photograph of this beautiful tree.) I have seen 6 foot trees in pots that were about 10 years old. A lot depends upon the grower!

Water about every three days—as in every houseplant, DON'T OVER WATER; feel the soil first. If your indoor humidity is not high enough, create a mini greenhouse by placing a clear plastic bag, supported by three or four sticks thrust into the soil, over the entire plant. Do not let intense sun fall upon the plant when in the mini greenhouse or the poor thing will cook! The bag can cover the plant for six months with no ill effects; remove it when the humidity is 50% or higher for extended periods.

When removing it, do so over two or three days, and from the bottom up. Whether inside or out, fertilize on a regular schedule. Some use an azalea type fertilizer; Bill Whitman recommends a 20-20-20 soluble plant food; 1/4 tsp. in a gallon of water, applied while watering every other week. Suitable brands are Peters, Hyponex or Hy-Gro.

Sources of miracle fruit plants or seeds? A number of your fellow RFCI members grow Synsepalum dulcificum, and make seeds available regularly through the Seed Bank or at the monthly meetings. Pat Hartmann, known as the Blueberry King of Michigan, will eventually be offering thousands of miracle fruit plants for sale; Bill Whitman has "been sending him seeds for years". Write for a free catalog to Hartmann's Plantation, P.O. Box E, Grand Junction, Michigan 49056 (904) 468-2087/468-2081.

Before going out to the garden to check on my own little miraculous berry, I must effusively thank Mr. William Whitman for his time, knowledge, advice and generosity in supplying various otherwise unobtainable literature that made this article possible. And now off to see how close I am to being able to play the old sweet lime trick on visitors to my house!

Photographic note: The photos were taken at Crowley's nursery, Sarasota, Florida. There are two variants of Synsepalum dulcificum, one has larger leaves than the other. These photos are of the larger leafed variety. Bill Whitman also grows a species that has leaves about 8 inches long but it has never set fruit in Florida and is reputed not to contain the taste changing glycoprotein. The editors attempts to propagate this plant by cuttings and marcotting have been unsuccessful.

Beidler, L., and Kurihara, K. "Taste-Modifying Protein from Miracle Fruit", Science, Vol. 161, September 1968.
Cagan, R.H. "Chemostimulatory Protein: A New Type of Taste Stimulus," Science, Vol. 181, July 1973.
Facciola, S. Cornucopia, A Source Book for Edible Plants. Vista, California: Kampong Publications, 1990.
Fairchild, David. Garden Islands of the Great East. NewYork: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943.
Hoyos Femandez, J. Frutales en Venezuela. Caracas, Venezuela: Sociedad de Ciencias Naturias La Salle, 1989.
Martin, F. W., Campbell C. W., Ruberte, R. M. Perennial Edible Fruits of the Tropics An Inventory. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Handbook No. 642.1987.
Tripp, N. 'The Miracle Berry"; Horticulture, January 1985.
Van Atta, Marian. Growing and Using Exotic Foods. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, 1991.
Wallace, J. F and M. J. Miracle Fruit: How Sweet It Is. Colville, Washington: Jenwa Enterprises, 1981.
The Merck Index, An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs and Biologicals. Entry #6072, Miraculin. 10th Edition, 1983.
Whitman, W. F. "How to Grow Your Miracle Fruit".
Whitman, W. F. "Miracle Fruit". Miami, Florida: The Rare Fruit Council International.

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McVicar Cannon, Donna. "The Old Sweet Lime Trick". Quisqualis Rare Fruit, Tropical Fruit and Rare Plant Information. 1992, 2006. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.

Fig. 1 McVicar Cannon, Donna. 1992. Quisqualis Rare Fruit, Tropical Fruit and Rare Plant Information. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.
Fig. 2,3,4,5,6,7 Cannon II, Bob. G. Large Leaved Miracle Fruit, Synsepalum dulcificum. 2003. Quisqualis Rare Fruit, Tropical Fruit and Rare Plant Information. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Published 31 Mar. 2015 LR
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