Barbados Cherry: Tart Tropical Cherries You’ll Love

Barbados cherry, popularly known as acerola, is a small tree or a bushy shrub that produces glossy green leaves. The tree produces a small cherry fruit in vivid crimson color. Cherry malpighia trees are fairly uncommon outside warm climates, but are worth growing for their unusual fruit.

Acerola fruit is soft, succulent, and juicy with a sweet-tart cherry flavor. Extremely rich in vitamin C, this fruit can provide your daily requirement with ease.

Often grown for producing acerola juice or jam, these delicate fruits bruise easily. It’s because of this that you’re unlikely to find it in your local supermarket. But when growing it at home, you can ensure at least one source of this unique and unusual fruit for your enjoyment.

So let’s explore all of the best methods to grow and maintain this uniquely tropical tree!

Get A Barbados Cherry Tree

Good Products For Growing Barbados Cherries:

Quick Care Guide

Barbados Cherry
Barbados cherry trees are lovely semi-tropical evergreens with tart-sweet fruit. Source: Rogerio da Silva
Common Name(s)Acerola cherry, West Indian cherry, Barbados cherry, wild crepe myrtle
Scientific NameMalpighia emarginata, Malpighia glabra, Malpighia punicifolia
Days to Harvest22-25 days from the end of flowering to fruit maturation
LightFull sun preferred, tolerates partial shade
Water:Consistent moisture for first few years, then occasional during dry periods
SoilLoam ideal. Soil pH should be slightly alkaline
Fertilizer1x early spring, 2x in summer, 1x in fall
PestsRoot knot nematodes, aphids, whiteflies, scale insects, fruit flies
DiseasesAnthracnose & cercospora leaf spots

All About Barbados Cherry

Malpighia emarginata foliage
Evergreen, the Barbados cherry produces lovely, lush green foliage. Source: Starr

Acerola cherry, also called barbados cherry, are a bit confusing to look for at first.  There’s three different botanical names associated with them.

The main fruiting species is Malpighia emarginata, and it produces prolific harvests of sweet acerola fruit. At one point it was classified under the botanical name of Malpighia punicifolia, but it has since been reclassified.

A secondary species, Malpighia glabra, is also called the Barbados cherry. This species is mostly ornamental, as it flowers heavily but produces very little fruit. The fruit tastes identical to that of the fruiting Malpighia.

Other common names for this species include West Indian cherry or wild crepe myrtle.

West Indian cherry is native to the West Indies, tropical lowlands from Mexico to southern Texas, and other neighboring areas in South America and Central America. It requires warm tropical conditions for flowering and to keep it in good shape as an evergreen.

While it can reach heights of up to 20 feet, it is often grown as a much shorter tree or a shrub. Its sweet-tart fruits are extremely rich in vitamin C, and are sometimes used in commercial vitamin production as well as for juices or preserves.

The Barbados cherry is an evergreen beauty that blooms throughout the summer months. Each flower is rosy pink and about 3/4ths of an inch in diameter. The flowers develop in clusters of three to six blossoms. As the flowers fade, pollinated blossoms mature into tasty cherries in under 25 days.

Unlike many other species of cherry, Malpighia species can flower and develop produce from late spring all the way into the fall. The fruits are bright red or deep crimson in color. They are juicy and have a delicate apple-like flavor with a slight tartness. 

Overall, Barbados cherry trees are bushy, large, and have spreading branches sprouting from a short trunk. The leaves of the cherry trees are glossy, green, and thick. They have a narrow oval shape that gracefully tapers.

The root system of this tree is shallow and spreading, making the tree vulnerable to harsh winds. However, they may be uprighted and can still recover as long as the roots were not damaged from falling.

Planting Acerola Cherry Trees

Malpighia glabra flowers
Malpighia species like this M. glabra produce stunning flowers in pink or white. Source: KHQ Flower Guide

If you’re in a warm climate, you may want to grow this tree yourself! Let’s go over what you’ll need to know before planting it.

When To Plant

While seeds are at best unreliable, planting them in a warm seedling tray in the fall may give you a very young tree to transplant out in the spring. It’s best to wait until they’re older to plant out your transplants as they have more time to get established before being subjected to the weather. Yearling seedlings are ideal for this purpose.

Ensure the soil is warm before planting, and that your region does not get frost. If it does, consider keeping your Malpighia in a container as a shrub and bringing it indoors during cold snaps.

Grafted, established trees can be planted in much of the southern United States in the early spring. 

Where To Plant

Acerola cherry trees can successfully grow in containers that have a diameter and height of at least 20 inches. This is the best method for those who aren’t in a warm, frost-free locale.

Ensure the location where you are planting your tree is sheltered from wind, but gets full sun conditions. If planting in the soil, space them at least 10-12 feet apart and a similar distance away from underground pipes or buildings. This ensures they have plenty of root spreading area.

How To Plant

Most saplings will be shipped in pots. To plant these potted acerolas, dig a hole that’s at least a diameter of 3-4 feet and a similar depth to loosen up the soil. Add lots of rich compost to provide soil nutrients, along with a healthy dose of agricultural lime, and work that into the soil. 

Create a mound in the center of your hole formed from your amended soil which will keep the tree at the same depth it’s currently planted. Do not plant it deeper, as this can potentially cause harm to the tree’s trunk or graft joint (if applicable). Backfill around it with your prepared soil, then apply 3”-4” of mulch around the base of the tree. Leave a gap between the mulch and the trunk.

Potted cherry malpighia species should be planted similarly, but in a large pot with amended soil. Again, ensure that it’s a soil on the alkaline side or provide agricultural lime to amend it.

Barbados Cherry Care

Unripe acerola cherries
Unripe cherries like these mature very quickly on the tree. Source: Starr

To get the unique apple-like flavor of this unusual cherry tree, you’ll want to give it optimal growing conditions. Let’s go over the right way to care for your trees now.

Sun and Temperature

Bright, direct sunlight is best for these trees. They’ll need warmth and humidity to stay healthy and to grow flowers and fruits. 8-12 hours of direct sunlight is great, but at the bare minimum aim for 6-8 hours.

Native to tropical or subtropical regions, the Barbados cherry is very frost-sensitive. Mature trees may be able to handle brief, short-lived exposures to temperatures in the 28-30 degree range. Seedlings can easily die at those temps, so keep them warm.

They perform at their best in USDA growing zones 9b-11, where it seldom drops below 40 degrees and reaches toasty temperatures throughout the summer.

Watering and Humidity

Young trees require regular irrigation. As your malpighia glabra or emarginata matures and develops deeper roots, it will become gradually more resistant to drought conditions. Still, you should provide water for it during times of drought. You can do this using a soaker hose for slow, gradual moisture application.

While it can tolerate humidity, no tree likes too much sogginess in its soil. Be sure that the soil drains off excess water readily to prevent conditions like root rot.

Soil

Loamy soil types are best for your tree. However, it will tolerate a clay-loam mix provided that it drains well. Even hard-packed clay that drains off excess water is acceptable if you’re planning on amending it.

The soil pH for your soil should be between 6.5 and 8. If in doubt, work some agricultural lime into your soil, as it’s more tolerant of alkaline conditions than acidic ones. Alkaline conditions also improve the tree’s yield.

Add some compost or manure to provide a lot of good organic material to your soil. It also can help to improve the moisture retention capabilities of your soil, so limit what you’re working into the planting hole to just enough to provide immediate gratification for your young tree. You can top-dress with additional compost later if necessary.

Fertilizing

Fertilize your tree once just before it comes out of winter dormancy, then twice in the summer and once in mid-fall. This provides it with plenty of nutrients to draw on for production of cherries or new foliage.

In the southern United States, the typical ratio for growers of these trees is 10-10-10 fertilizer in the very early spring. Use a 5-5-5 or a more specialized fertilizer dose for the two summer feedings and fall feeding.

Feed based on the age of your tree and the directions of your fertilizer manufacturer. Do not use acidic fertilizers meant for plants like rhododendrons or citrus. Instead, opt for a fertilizer made for fruit or vegetable development.

Pruning

Ripe and unripe West Indian cherries
Unripe acerola cherries are green to yellow. Ripe ones are scarlet in color. Source: Starr

Pruning can be done at any time of year, but is best performed when the plant has stopped fruiting. It will need time to recover post-pruning before weather conditions change, so it can be a bit tricky to time it.

Barbados cherries can be maintained as a shrub form. For this method of growth, keep the height trimmed to your preferred maximum height, and allow side shoots to form and fill out. Try to trim down excess vertical growth just above a leaf or stem node to allow for new branching.

For a tree format, keep basal sprouts in check and allow it to only develop a single trunk. You can top the branches to keep them at a maximum height, but allow for some canopy development. Be sure to provide lots of light exposure inside the canopy for good fruit development.

Regardless of your pruning technique, use either sterilized loppers or sterilized hand pruning shears. Keeping a solution of 1 part bleach in 9 parts of water at hand allows you to re-sterilize between cuts.

Propagation

The Barbados cherry can be propagated from seed or from stem cuttings. It is also sometimes grafted onto alternative rootstocks.

Seeds are often unreliable methods of propagation. Most have a 50% or less germination rate, some as low as 5%. It is far better to propagate from stem cuttings.

Select a healthy 6-8” long stem, preferably one which is semi-hardened. Avoid green new shoots or particularly old growth. Gently peel back a couple strips of bark from the cut end, and dip it into water and then rooting hormone. This enables it to more readily develop roots.

Keep your cutting in a bright, indirectly-lit location. Provide humidity around the cutting to keep it damp, either by using a humidifier or by placing a cloche or cover over the cutting. Treat as you would other new plant cuttings. New growth will usually appear within 2 months. It can then be transplanted.

Harvesting and Storing

Harvested Malpighia emarginata fruit
The fruit of Malpighia emarginata is about the size of a normal cherry. Source: Starr

One of the complex things about these fruits are their short shelf life. Let’s go over reliable harvesting and storage methods for your plant.

Harvesting

Early on, acerola cherries form as green, hard nodules. Gradually with time they yellow, then turn red. They can be harvested once fully red and slightly soft to the touch.

Hand-pick your fruits, but gently. These bruise incredibly easily. It’s best to wear gloves as the fuzz that develops on the leaves and stems can be a slight skin irritant.

Storing

Ripe fruits only last for a few days. Expect a storage time of no more than 3 days from harvest to consumption. Be very gentle when handling these, even to wash them. They bruise incredibly easily, and a bruised cherry will not last as long as an intact one.

For longer-term storage, they can be juiced and the juice can be frozen. They also make an excellent jam for canning. Some experiments with dehydration have worked, but not reliably.

Troubleshooting

Ripe acerola cherries
Ripe acerola cherries do not store for long, and should be harvested quickly. Source: Rogerio da Silva

If you’re in a warm enough climate, this tree grows readily. But what if it doesn’t? Let’s talk about that.

Growing Problems

The trees are quite sensitive to low temperatures. A young plant can easily die in temperatures below 30 degrees F. If you get cold winters, container-grow your tree.

While underwatering isn’t much of a problem, overwatering the trees may lead to root rot. Provide good drainage wherever your tree is at and check the soil moisture before watering.

Pests

Root knot nematodes are actually one of the largest problems most people face. For whatever reason, they find the root system of a healthy tree to be extremely tasty. Apply beneficial nematodes to your soil so they can clear out the harmful nematodes.

Aphids and whiteflies are both opportunistic sucking pests that frequent juicy leaves to suck the sap out of them. The aphids may also target flowers in bloom. Use a neem oil or horticultural oil spray on your tree to ensure it’s less likely to be targeted.

Scale insects and mealybugs are not uncommon. Most of them will cluster around the leaf base or at the joints of stems and branches. These are also dissuaded from moving in by regular applications of neem oil. Just remember to avoid spraying neem on your tree during excessive heat.

Finally, some forms of fruit flies really love the acerola cherry fruit. Yellow sticky traps will provide a hint that they’ve arrived. To prevent their spread, remove all fallen leaves, debris, or cherries that have dropped. Keep your tree regularly harvested to prevent falling cherries. 

Diseases

Two forms of leaf spot, caused by anthracnose and cercospora fungi, can be found on malpighia trees. Both can be treated with a copper-based organic fungicide.

Ripe, but unharvested fruits will quickly develop brown rot. Remove the rotting cherries and dispose of them.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can you eat Barbados cherry?

A: Yes, Barbados cherry can be eaten fresh. It can also be pureed, juiced, or cooked down into a delicious jam. 

Q: What does Barbados cherry taste like?

A: Acerola cherries taste a little like sweet-tart apples. There’s a bright hint of acidity and a clean, crisp aftertaste. Barbados cherries are soft in texture with an oddly-shaped triad of seeds in the middle.

Q: How big does a Barbados cherry tree get?

A: A Barbados cherry tree can grow up to 20 feet in height. Many are kept trimmed to a shorter, more manageable height and grown as hedges or large bushes.


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Lorin Nielsen
Lifetime Gardener

Clarisa Teodoro
Researcher

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