Also known as the lulo, lulum
By Scott Sheu
With a name that means “little orange” in Spanish, the naranjilla is a diminutive fruit that packs a big punch. Despite its name and color, the misleading fruit is not of the citrus family, but is related to the eggplant and tomato.
Origin and Distribution
The origin of the naranjilla is not clear, but believed to be indigenous to the mountainous regions of Colombia and Ecuador, where it was first recorded in the 17th century (Morton; Heiser). It is known in Colombia as the “lulo,” as reflective of the Incan name “lulum.” It is believed that the Incas enjoyed the juice of the naranjilla fruit.
Since then, cultivation has slowly spread through South and Central America to place such as Peru, Panama, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Due to difficulties in cultivation, the plant has not been successfully introduced elsewhere in the world. Though the fruit and its juice were introduced with great popular acclaim at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, its delicate nature and failure to bear fruit outside of South America has prevented the naranjilla from becoming a widespread fruit. Efforts to can and preserve the pulp have been pursued by companies such as Campbell’s Soup, but have failed or been dismissed because of their inferior flavor (Heiser).
The naranjilla is an attractive semi-tropical shrub that is usually found at elevations of 3,000 to 8,000 feet high. It can grow up to 8 feet high with large leaves that can grow up to 2 feet long. When young, it is softly covered with fine purple hairs and sometimes has large thorns. The plant has a thick stem that is usually spiny in the wild, but spineless when cultivated (Morton). The fragrant flowers of the naranjilla have five white petals on the top with large yellow stamen, with purple petals on the bottom. The plant is particularly susceptible to nematodes.
The round naranjilla fruit grows to 2.5 inches and has a smooth, leathery peel that resembles a small orange when ripe. Until it reaches ripeness, the fruit is covered in thick brown hairs, which gives it a slight resemblance to a kiwi fruit. The hair can then be easily rubbed off when the fruit has properly ripened. The flesh of the naranjilla is light yellow-orange with a large ring of juicy green pulp and small, thin seeds.
The taste of naranjilla pulp is citrusy, said to resemble a cross between a pineapple and a lemon, and is popularly used in South and Central America (Davidson). The fruit is usually consumed as a fresh, green-colored juice by adding sugar and water to the pulp and then lightly blending it to produce a light foam. The juice can also be found frozen. The naranjilla fruit is also eaten fresh, usually by cutting it in half and squeezing the pulp out (Morton).
The fruit may be used for preserves, wine, sauces, and sherbets. One popular method of using the naranjilla is in pies and other baked goods, where it is often mixed with bananas. The plant is used as an ornamental, particularly in northern areas where the naranjilla often fails to bear fruit.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress,1999.
Heiser Jr., Charles B. “Ethnobotany of the Naranjilla (Solanum quitoense) and its Relatives.” Economic Botany, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1985), pp. 4-11. Web. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4254703
Heiser Jr., Charles B. Of Plants and People. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
Morton, Julia. "Naranjilla." Fruits of Warm Climates. Miami: Florida Flair Books, 1987. Web. http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/index.html.
National Research Council (NRC). Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation. Lost crops of the Incas : little-known plants of the Andes with promise for worldwide cultivation. Washington D.C.: National Academy, 1989. Print.