Atemoya Tree: A Mini Soursop With Big Flavor

Have you ever heard of an atemoya tree? This lovely tropical, a hybrid of the cherimoya and the sugar apple, is a beautiful evergreen perennial with unusual fruit. Developed in Florida, it’s now widespread internationally and is gaining in popularity. And you’ll still find native specimens in Florida today!

While often inaccurately referred to as the African pride, custard apple, it’s more commonly called pineapple sugar apple or mini soursop. Its fruits are delicious and have a hint of a tropical-infused vanilla flavor to them.

We’ve got lots of information on this unique cherimoya hybrid and its unusual fruits. Read on to learn more about how to hand raise your very own atemoya!

Good Products For Growing Atemoyas:

Quick Care Guide

Atemoya tree
The atemoya tree is an unusual fruiting hybrid, quite fun to grow. Source: vera sayão
Common Name(s)Atemoya, pineapple sugar apple, mini soursop
Scientific NameAnnona squamosa x Annona cherimola
Month(s) of HarvestAugust to October 
LightFull sun
Water:At least 1” per week during growing season
SoilLoamy, rich soil, well-draining, pH 6.6-7.5
FertilizerTwice per year
PestsMealybugs, scale insects, chalcid flies
DiseasesPhytophthora collar rot, leaf spots

About The Atemoya Tree

Closeup of unripe atemoya fruit
A close-up image of an unripe atemoya. As it ripens, the fruit will change color. Source: vivilynda

The Atemoya trees were referred to as cherimoya for the longest time. However, these are a hybrid of sweet apple and cherimoya: Annona squamosa x Annona Cherimola. 

This fruit tree is native to Miami, where it was initially developed in 1908 by P.J. Wester, a horticulturist at the USDA. In 1911, seeds were taken to the Philippines and its international popularity in tropical regions of the world began. While it may be native to Florida, it grows well in tropical climates worldwide.

The fruit is especially popular in Taiwan where it’s known as ‘pineapple sugar apple’ while in Lebanon and Israel, the fruit is called “achta”. “Chirimorinon” is what it’s referred to in Venezuela, and in Tanzania it’s referred to as the “mini soursop”.

The atemoya tree is a fast-growing perennial that closely resembles cherimoya. These trees can easily reach a height of up to 30.ft. It has drooping branches with deciduous leaves that are elliptical and leathery, but are less hairy than that of the cherimoya tree. 

The hybrid plant also bears beautiful flowers that are triangular, long-stalked and pale yellow in color. An interesting aspect of this plant is that its flowers are hermaphroditic. A flower will open between 2-4pm one day as a female blossom. The next day, between 3-5pm, it will open as a male flower full of sticky pollen.

Atemoya trees bear bumpy, heart-shaped fruits that are around 8-12 inches in length. The rind of the fruits is pale-green and slowly turns yellow as they ripen. The flesh is white in color with firm, black seeds. Its unique flavor resembles a custard or flan and has been described as similar to a pina colada or vanilla flavor.

Planting Atemoya Trees

Atemoya Annona/Cherimola is an interesting plant, but requires care to get started off right. Let’s go over what you’ll need to know to plant your atemoya properly! 

When To Plant

It’s best to plant atemoya during its dormant period from late winter into very early spring. This reduces the risk of transplant shock. Whether growing from bare-root stock or in-pot, your atemoya annona/cherimola will need the warmer season to get established, so don’t plant it late in the active growing season. 

Where To Plant

Spacing is key for your atemoya. As it’s fairly large when fully grown, it needs plenty of room. 28-30’ apart is generally considered a good spacing, although they can be grown slightly closer together if in an orchard setting.

Opt for a location with full sun coverage year-round. Stay away from structures, power lines, or water/gas/sewer pipes to prevent the roots or foliage from causing hazardous conditions.

High winds can cause damage to the tree’s canopy, so try to find a location where it is at least partially sheltered from the wind. Using other trees at least 20’ away as a windbreak can be effective.

How To Plant

Growing the plant from seed can take quite a while. Germination takes about four weeks, and you should not plant your young tree in the ground until it’s at least one year old. Prior to that, keep it in a container.

When planting in the soil, dig a much larger hole than you expect to need. You’ll want to loosen up the soil at least a couple feet out from the current root size. Amend with compost as necessary.

Plant your tree at the same depth that it was in the pot. Bare-root trees should have their roots soaked for a few minutes prior to planting, and you should spread out the roots so they don’t spiral. Potted trees should have the root ball broken up to ensure those roots aren’t spiraling either. Do not plant the atemoya deeper than it was in its pot, especially if it was grafted.

Mulch around the base of your atemoya to prevent weeds from developing and to keep moisture in the soil. 

Atemoya Care

Atemoyas on tree
The average atemoya tree will produce quite a few fruits if pollinated well. Source: mmmavocado

Atemoya is relatively hardy, but still prefers some very specific conditions. Here’s everything you should know about its care and maintenance. 

Light & Temperature

Annona squamosa x Annona cherimola needs full sun every day. Make sure it’s getting at least 8 hours of sunlight or more. 

Atemoya is native to Miami, Florida, and as such does best in warm climates. Its ideal temperature range is between 75 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

While young plants are a little vulnerable to frost, mature trees can withstand temperatures as low as 26.5 degrees F. If the temperature starts dropping below 40, consider using some form of cold protection such as blankets wrapped around the trunk and branches.

Watering & Humidity

Regular and consistent watering is best for your atemoya. While somewhat drought-tolerant, they perform better if they are not water-stressed. Using a soaker hose around the base of your tree to provide deep, slow watering 2-3 times a week is good for the first year. Reduce watering as you move into the fall and winter; those months the plant doesn’t need the extra moisture as much.

Older trees can tolerate short periods of drought, but a lack of water during fruiting can reduce the fruit size. Be cautious not to provide too much water during fruiting, though. Too much water can cause the fruit’s flavor to be less appealing. 

As a general rule, an inch or two of water per week is plenty for a mature atemoya tree.

Soil

It grows best in deep rich loamy to sandy soils with the ideal pH between 6.6 and 7.5. While it can tolerate poor soil, amending the soil with lots of compost provides a nice kickstart for your tree’s health. These can grow in hard clay, but if the soil’s too hard it will take longer for it to develop a healthy root system.

Your soil must be well-draining. Soggy soils which don’t drain excess water well can lead to root rot.

Fertilizing

Avoid fertilizing your plant until it’s 2-3 years in age. The young roots are very sensitive to fertilizer burn. Similarly, avoid fertilizing the soil around newly-transplanted trees for the same reason. Give them time to settle in and harden up a bit.

Use a 6-10-16 slow-release granular fertilizer twice a year once your tree is well-established. Your first dose should be in the spring, approximately a month prior to flowering. The rest should be applied between the flowering and fruiting phases.

Pollination

Most pollination of atemoya trees is done by beneficial insects. Certain species of nitidulid beetles are common in Israel, but in the United States, bees or other beneficial insects are also good pollinators.

Hand pollination is an option but may be complex. Female flowers open on one day, then close as the sun goes down. The next day, those female flowers are now male pollen producers. You will need to find both male and female flowers to perform your hand pollination. Use a cotton swab or paintbrush to gather some of the sticky pollen, then apply it to female flowers. Repeat as needed to encourage good fruiting.

Pruning

In the first few years, your pruning should open up the canopy to allow good airflow. Cuts should be carefully selected to create a strong and resilient frame upon which further growth can develop.

Once the tree is four or five years of age, you can prune for shaping purposes or to allow increased light and airflow into the center of the canopy. At this point, only light pruning is required each year. 

Opt to do your pruning before new buds start to open in the spring. Late winter is ideal for most fruit pruning purposes.

Propagation

Atemoya propagation is typically by seed or through grafting.

Seeds should be planted in soil that’s at least 70 degrees and kept warm and moist for the roughly 4 weeks they take to germinate. A seedling heating mat can help keep the temperature consistent. 

Grafts from fruiting wood are often applied to sugar apple rootstock or cherimoya rootstock. While sugar apple is preferred in the US, cherimoya is often chosen in Israel. For young sugar apple or cherimoya rootstock, use a tongue graft for best development. If grafting onto older trees to expand the canopy, a cleft or bark graft can be used.

Harvesting and Storing Atemoya Fruit

Atemoya fruit
The inside of the atemoya fruit. Note its large, inedible seeds. Source: chotda

Atemoya fruit can be harvested from August through October. When the fruit matures and ripens, the color changes from a true green to yellowish-green. As atemoyas do not ripen once harvested, one must give special attention to the bumps or areoles around the fruit’s surface. Pale, creamy white lines will form around the areoles, which is a sign that the space between them is widening. Until those lines appear, do not harvest fruits!

To harvest, use a sterile pair of pruning shears to clip through the stem just above the fruit. Do not pull the fruit by hand to avoid causing damage to the branches.

Storing

Ripe fruits should only be stored for 3-4 days in the fridge. For longer-term storage, remove the skins and seeds and freeze your fruit. This fruit works well for making ice cream or smoothies. 

Troubleshooting

There’s only a few problems you might experience — but let’s discuss those!

Growing Problems

Overwatering can cause severe issues for your plant. Not at all resilient to root rot or other soilborne fungi, it needs to have excellent drainage. Ensure that your atemoya does not have standing water around it at any time to reduce the spread of rot-causing fungi.

Atemoya is susceptible to a condition known as “little leaf”, where it produces leaf sizes that are smaller than average. This is not a disease but is instead a zinc deficiency. Foliar spraying will remedy this issue and improve the growth of future leaves.

Pests

The citrus mealybug, Planococcus citri, is one of the most common pests for this plant. Other forms of scale insects including white and pink wax scale and brown olive scale can also gather on the stems or leaves. The use of horticultural and dormant oil reduces scale and mealybug populations. Neem oil has a similar effect. For particularly stubborn infestations, use an insecticidal soap with pyrethrin.

The chalcid fly can cause fruit damage and should be eliminated using fly traps such as a yellow sticky trap. 

Diseases

Phytophthora collar rot can manifest around the base of the trunk. Gum will ooze out of the bottom of the trunk and the upper crown roots. To treat, carefully remove the bark and rot, then wipe the area down with a wet towel to be sure you’ve removed it all. Apply copper fungicide on the damaged parts and stay watchful to make sure it does not return.

Some forms of fungal leaf spot can also affect your atemoya. While these are usually not severe or particularly dangerous to the plant, you can eliminate them with a copper fungicide as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

Custard apple
Custard apples are related to atemoya, but are not the same. Source: vivilynda

Q: Is atemoya a custard apple?

A: It’s been called custard apple in the past, particularly in Queensland and New South Wales. Sometimes, it’s still referred to as a custard apple. However, it’s a hybrid, Annona squamosa x Annona cherimola. The custard apple is Annona reticulata, a related species but not quite the same. The fruits do not have the same flavor profile at all, as custard apple tastes custardy whereas the mini soursop has a vanilla-pina colada flavor.

Q: Is atemoya toxic to humans or pets?

A: All Annona species plants have seeds which are toxic to both humans and their pets. These seeds should be removed before eating the fruits.

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