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Manilkara zapota, the sapodilla, is a tropical evergreen tree in the Sapotaceae (sapota family) native to and long cultivated by the Aztecs and Mayas in Mexico and Central America for its pear-flavored edible fruit and for its latex, chicle, the original source of chewing gum. Sapodilla is now cultivated in various tropical regions, including India, various parts of southeast Asia, Indonesia, and the U.S. (Florida) for its fruit, the latex tapped from the bark, and occasionally for timber.

The sapodilla was an important component of forests in its native range in the Yucatan region of Mexico and throughout Central America—by some estimates, the region once had around 100 million sapodilla trees. The sapodilla is a large attractive tree, sometimes planted as an ornamental, reaching 18 to 20 m (58 to 65 feet) when grown in the open, but up to 30 m (100 ft) in forest canopies. The pointed, elliptical leaves are alternate, spirally clustered at the branch tips, and are leathery and glossy green, 7.5 to 15.5 cm (3 to 6 in) long. The small white to pale green flowers are bell-shaped, enclosed by 6 sepals (outer flower parts), and are borne singly in the axils (where leaf meets stem). The fruits are large-seeded berries, up to 11.5 cm (4 in) across, with variable shape but often egg-shaped with thin, rusty brown, rough skin covering yellow-brown translucent juicy flesh with 3 to 12 shiny, dark brown to black mildly toxic seeds in a whorl in the center of the fruit. The edible flesh may have the grainy texture of a pear or may be smooth.

Sapotilla is now used primarily for its fruits, which are high in vitamin C and are generally eaten fresh or prepared in purées, ice creams, or beverages. However, its production of latex, chicle, for chewing gum, which was first used by used by the Mayas, was of great economic importance in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize from the late 1800s through the 1940s, when chicle was a component of popular chewing gums developed and sold by companies such as Wrigley’s and Beech-Nut. During World War II, shortages of chicle resulted in rationing of chewing gum for soldiers, and helped spur the development of synthetic replacements. Despite a recent revival of chicle as a natural health-food alternative to synthetic gums, chicle-based gums made up just 3.5% of the chewing gum produced in 2007.

(Bailey et al. 1976, Forero and Redclift 2007, Matthews 2009, Morton 1987, van Wyk 2005.)


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