The ilama (also known as the tree of the ilama, Annona diversifolia) is a tropical fruit tree found in Central America. The name is derived from the Spanish from the Nahuatl ilamatzapotl, of which the rough translation is "old woman's sapote". The name is also applied to a similar fruit, soncoya or cabeza de negro (A. pupurea), which is cultivated as an alternative to the cherimoya. The soncoya is similar in size to the ilama, but grey-brown in color with hard bumps on the surface, and orange flesh that tastes like mango or pawpaw.
The ilama fruit is either eaten on the half-shell or scooped out with a tool, usually chilled when served. It is sometimes served with a little cream and sugar to intensify the flavor, or with a drop of lime or lemon juice to bring in a tart and bitter tinge.
The ilama fruit is either cone-shaped, heart-shaped, or ovular. Resembling the cherimoya, it is about six inches (15 cm) long and may weigh as much as two pounds (900 g). Generally, the ilama is dotted with more-or-less pronounced, triangular spikes that jut out of the fruit, though some fruits on the same tree may vary from rough to fairly smooth.
There are two types of ilama, green and pink. The green type has a flesh that is white and sweet, while in the pink type, the flesh is a rose color and has a tart taste.
The rind, or skin, of the ilama varies from a pale-green color to a deep-pink or purplish color coated with a thick mat of velvety, gray-white bloom. It is about 1/4 inch thick (6 mm), leathery, fairly soft, and granular.
The center of both ilamas are somewhat fibrous, but smooth and custardy near the rind. The flesh varies from being dry to being fairly juicy, and contains 25 to 80 hard, smooth, brown, cylindrical seeds, about 3/4 inch (2 cm) long, and 3/8 inch (1 cm) wide. Each seed is enclosed in a close-fitting membrane that, when split, slides right off of the seed.
The tree that produces the ilama stands erect at about 25 feet (7.5m), and often the branches begin at ground level. The tree is distinguished by its aromatic, pale-brownish-grey, furrowed bark and glossy, thin, elliptic to obovate or oblanceolate leaves, two to six inches (5-15cm) long. Clasping the base of the flowering branchlets are one or two leaf-like, nearly circular, glabrous bracts, about 1 to 1-3/8 inches (2.5 - 3.5cm) in length. New growth from the tree is a reddish or coppery color. The flowers of the ilama tree are long and solitary. They are maroon flowers, which open to the base, and have small, rusty, hairy sepals, narrow, blunt, minutely hairy outer petals, and stamen-like, pollen-bearing inner petals.
Fruit harvest of the ilama tree occurs in late June in Mexico, and only lasts about two weeks. In Guatemala, the harvest season extends from late July to September, and from July to December where the ilama is cultivated in Florida.
According to tradition, the fruits are not to be picked until cracking occurs, but they can be picked a little earlier and held up to three days for softening to take place. If the ilama is picked too early, it will never ripen. The yield of the ilama is typically low. During the normal fruiting period, some trees will have no fruits; others only three to 10, while exceptional trees may bear as many as 85 to 100 fruits per season.
Francisco Hernandez was one of the first people to document the ilama. He was sent by King Philip II of Spain in 1570 to take note of the useful products of Mexico. For many years, people confused it with the soursop or the custard apple.
The ilama is native and grows wild in the foothills of the southwest coast of Mexico and of the Pacific coast of Guatemala and El Salvador. It is strictly a tropical plant. It does not grow naturally higher than 2,000 feet (610 m) in Mexico; although in El Salvador it is cultivated at 5,000 feet (1,524 m), and in Guatemala, it is cultivated up to 5,900 feet (1,800 m). The ilama survives best in climates where there is a long dry season followed by plentiful rainfall. The tree is irrigated in areas where rainfall does not fall periodically.
According to analyses made in El Salvador, the food value per 100 g of edible portion of the fruit is as follows:
- Moisture, 71.5 g
- Protein, 0.447 g
- Fat, 0.16 g
- Fiber, 1.3 g
- Ash, 1.37 g
- Calcium, 31.6 mg
- Phosphorus, 51.7 mg
- Iron, 0.70 mg
- Carotene, 0.011 mg
- Thiamine, 0.235 mg
- Riboflavin, 0.297 mg
- Niacin, 2.177 mg
- Ascorbic Acid, 13.6 mg
The ilama fruit was used as a plot device in the 1997 Malayalam film, Guru directed by Rajeev Anchal. Guru was India's official entry to the 1997 Academy Award to be considered for nomination for the Best Foreign Film.
However, unlike its portrayal in the film, eating ilama fruit doesn't cause blindness nor does the seed cure one of blindness.
- Davidson, Alan. Oxford Companion to Food (1999). "Ilama", pp. 395-396.