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Pitangatuba: The Unique Star Cherry

The Brazilian native, pitangatuba, is a must-have, low-maintenance evergreen shrub that produces juicy delicious fruit. Commonly referred to as star cherry, the yellow fruit resembles star fruit and has a pit in the middle like your typical cherry. The acidic fruit is a combination of sweet and sour with hints of tropical fruit flavors like mango, passion fruit, and pineapple. Star cherry thrives in the heat and requires mild winters. Fortunately, it can be brought inside for protection during the winter making it possible to grow almost anywhere. 

Pitangatuba can be grown as a shrub or a small tree. It would be a wonderful addition to the edible landscape because of its manageable size, attractive dark green foliage, disease and pest resistance, and delectable fruit. It can be grown in full or partial sun and can be grown in a pot or the ground. 

Depending on your climate, pitangatuba fruits throughout most of the year with heavier fruiting seasons in the spring and summer. The juicy fruit is extremely delicate and spoils quickly after ripening, so buying quality fruit is nearly impossible. Fruit can be eaten off the plant or used in juices, smoothies, jam/jelly, and ice cream. 

This underrecognized plant is incredibly versatile and easy to grow, although it may be difficult to find at a local store. There are a handful of online retailers that can ship plants or seeds to your home. 

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Quick Care Guide

Pitangatuba
Pitangatuba or star cherry is an unusual tropical fruit. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Common Name(s)Pitangatuba, Star Cherry, Surinam Cherry
Scientific NameEugenia selloi (Eugenia neonitida)
Days to Harvest3-4 weeks from flowering
LightFull sun to partial sun
Water:Moderate to high
SoilWell draining, high organic content
Fertilizer2-3 times per year using a balanced fertilizer
PestsScale and caterpillars
DiseasesRoot rot and leaf spot

All About Pitangatuba

Eugenia uniflora
Eugenia uniflora is a close relative of pitangatuba.

Eugenia selloi (originally Eugenia neonitida) is referred to as the pitangatuba, pitang, and star cherry. It is almost identical and often confused with Eugenia uniflora, the Surinam Cherry. The fruit of Eugenia uniflora is slightly smaller than the star cherry and the fruit is red when fully ripe. Both species are native to Brazil. The Eugenia genus is part of the Myrtaceae or Myrtle family along with guava, allspice, and eucalyptus.

Eugenia selloi is grown as an evergreen bush or small tree. The dark green leaves are shiny, opposite, and oval with a pointy tip. The pitangatuba can grow up to 9 feet in height but typically stays between 4-6 feet tall. The flowers are white with four petals and the fruit is green during development turning a bright yellow when ripe. The fruit is about the size of a small apricot and the outside looks similar to a star fruit with less defined edges. Star cherries have thick juicy edible flesh surrounding one or two large seeds. The fruit is fairly acidic but sweetens as it ripens. 

Star cherries are not grown commercially because they are extremely delicate and spoil after a couple of days. For this reason, specific cultivars have not been established. Plants are commonly grown from seed, so there is a range in growth characteristics, fruit size, and fruit flavor. Genetics plays a big role in fruit production. Some shrubs produce a lot of flowers but do not set a lot of fruit.

Eugenia selloi flowers and fruits sporadically throughout the year depending on the climate. Spring and summer are the heavy flowering seasons with fruit taking 3-4 weeks to ripen. Star cherry is self-fertile but will produce more fruit when cross-pollinated. Plants will begin fruiting in 2-3 years when grown from seed.

Planting

Star cherries can be planted in a large pot or the ground. Good drainage is essential for growing a healthy plant. If drainage is poor, amend with organic matter and plant in a raised bed or mound. Shrubs are often grown from seed but can be grafted for replicating specific characteristics.

The best time to plant is in the spring when temperatures are mild. Star cherries are sensitive to cold, so plant in a warm sunny location. If the summers are excessively warm, consider planting in a location with filtered light or partial shade

Always acclimate pitangatubas over two weeks before planting in full sun to avoid leaf scorch. Mature pitangatubas will require at least a 15-gallon pot. When planting in the ground, dig a hole twice the size of the rootball. Cover and top the soil will mulch to preserve moisture and regulate the temperature.

Care

Unripe pitangatuba
When unripe, the pitangatuba blends into its foliage.

Pitangatubas are extremely easy to care for. They will continue to grow with minimal effort. Follow the guide below to grow a healthy, high-yielding plant.

Sun and Temperature

Star cherry grows well in full or partial sun receiving at least 6 hours of sunlight. Afternoon shade or filtered sun is best in warmer areas that consistently reach above 85°F or more during the summer.

Star cherries can be grown in USDA zones 10-11 or 4-11 if brought indoors during the winter. They are more sensitive to cold temperatures experiencing cold damage when temperatures drop slightly below freezing. However, they thrive in the summer heat. Although they perform best when they receive some shade when temperatures rise above 85°F, it is not required.

Water and Humidity

Keep the soil moist, but not overly wet. Allowing the soil to dry too much will cause damage to the roots. Provide extra water when flowering and fruiting without keeping the soil constantly saturated. Monitor moisture levels during the winter and rainy season and reduce irrigations when necessary.

Drip irrigation and soaker hoses should be used for in-ground plants to avoid runoff. Plants in a container can be irrigated with drip irrigation or manually with a hose.

Soil

Star cherries need well-draining soil in order to thrive. They can survive in nutrient poor soil, but growth rate and fruit production will be affected. For optimal growth, keep the soil pH between 6.1-7.5 and incorporate plenty of organic matter.

Fertilizing

Fertilize twice a year in the spring and summer using a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10. Follow the fertilizer label for rates and instructions.

Pruning

Prune bushes or trees in the winter to shape and remove dead twigs and branches. If growing pitangatuba as a small tree, prune off lower branches to expose one central trunk. Then prune to keep 3-5 main branches. Choose strong branches that are not overlapping.

Pitangatuba is not deciduous, so do not wait for a bare shrub before pruning. Pitangatuba bushes are naturally small, so pruning should be minimal. Old fruit should drop naturally. Shaking the plant will help knock down old fruit.

Propagation

The most common method for propagation is by seed. Finding viable seeds may be a challenge because they do not dry well and cannot tolerate cold storage. It is best to plant seeds within 10 days of removing them from the fruit. Seeds are slow to germinate and may take around 4 weeks.

Grafting is an option for replicating specific traits. Since there are not established cultivars, there is a lot of variability in plant and fruit characteristics. Older plants can be topworked using the cleft grafting technique. This is particularly useful if the plant does not yield a lot of fruit or the fruit quality is poor. Young seedlings can also be grafted.

Harvesting and Storing

Savanna pitanga vs pitangatuba
A comparison of Savanna pitanga (Eugenia pitanga) and star cherry (Eugenia selloi). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Star cherries are extremely easy to harvest. Although they do not store well fresh, there are a few options for preserving fruit so that it doesn’t go to waste.

Harvesting

Fruit is ready to harvest when it turns bright yellow or yellow-orange, or in the case of E. uniflora when they turn fully red. Star cherries will come off easily when ripe. It is not necessary to pull or tug fruit. Fruit is not ready if it needs to be forced. Do not collect fruits that have fallen on the ground as they will be damaged and contaminated. Gently wash fruit before eating.

Storing

Star cherries only last about a day or a few days if you’re lucky. They should be eaten or used promptly after picking. For long-term storage, fruits can be frozen or preserved as a jam or jelly. The pits will need to be removed before freezing or preserving.

Troubleshooting

Ripe and unripe star cherries
Various stages of unripe, ripe, and over-ripe Eugenia uniflora fruit.

Pitangatuba shrubs are very easy to care for. They have almost no issues with diseases or pests. Although growing problems are rare, below are a few issues that you may encounter. 

Growing Problems

Some shrubs will grow a lot of flowers but yield very little fruit. This is most likely due to the genetics of the plant. When growing star cherry from seed, the characteristics of the plant will not be known until grown to maturity. The bush may or may not be a good producer of fruit or the fruit flavor may not be as desirable. Topworking or grafting a better quality pitangatuba onto an under performing pitangatuba is an excellent option for swapping out an unwanted plant without starting from scratch. 

Poor drainage or overwatering will stunt growth and cause an overall unhealthy plant. The bush may drop leaves and will be less fruitful. Improving drainage or watering less will resolve this problem. 

Pests

Soft and armored scales can be found on the twigs and branches of trees and shrubs. There are several species of scale in a variety of colors ranging from yellow to brown to black. Damage usually does not come directly from the scale. Scales excrete excessive amounts of honeydew which leads to sooty mold. Sooty mold covers the foliage which inhibits photosynthesis and leads to leaf drop. Scales are usually controlled with natural predators and parasites. If treatment is necessary, oil sprays are effective.

Caterpillars can be found on the leaves causing chew marks and distorted or rolled leaves. Damage should not have a significant effect on pitangatuba. Caterpillars can be physically removed or chemically treated with an organic pesticide such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and Spinosad. It is highly unlikely that chemical application will be necessary.

Diseases

Root rot diseases are uncommon but can occur when plants are overwatered or when there is poor drainage. Signs of root rot include light green to yellow leaves and leaf drop. Treatment is not necessary. Avoid overwatering and plant in a location that will not flood or remain saturated.

Leaf spots may occur during the rainy season. Damage is usually minimal and treatment is not necessary. The damage may be removed by pruning.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What do star cherries taste like?

A: Star cherries have a unique tropical tart flavor. The taste is often compared to mango, pineapple, and passion fruit.

Q: Are Surinam cherries poisonous to dogs?

A: Surinam cherries are not poisonous to dogs, but the seeds may cause diarrhea in dogs when given whole fruits.