‘Alasa’ is African star apple

Sun, 21 Dec 2014 Source: Pacas, Idris

‘Alasa’ is African star apple (Chrysophyllum albidum)

Popularly called ‘alasa’ by the Ga people of the Greater Accra Region of Ghana, African star apple is the fruit borne by the tree Chrysophyllum albidum in the Sapotaceae family. ‘Adasima’ is reportedly the name given to this fruit by the Fantes or the Akans in general.

Somehow ovoid to nearly spherical with slightly pointed tips, the orange or yellow-brown fruits are gathered and sold in most markets in southern Ghana. And during this time (October to January each year), you may likely see them displayed in trays by our roadsides and in our markets.

Albeit tasting somewhat sour, ‘alasa’ is relished by most children. Because of the extreme acidity, the epicarp (of the fruit) is rarely eaten. The fruit, a true berry, contains five flat or bean-shaped seeds enclosed in shiny, brown testae (/testii/ = seedcoats). The seed has a long hilum (/hailum/ = scar) running from one end to the other. Both the brown seedcoat and the prominent scar uniquely identify seeds of all plants belonging to the family Sapotaceae. Other members of this family here in Ghana are shea (Vitellaria paradoxa) and miracle berry (Synsepalum dulcificum). The Ewe people call miracle berry ‘ele’ and the Akans ‘asoa’.

But why is ‘alasa’ called African star apple? We will start from the last word—apple. Apple is used here because the fruit is shaped somehow like an apple. And what about the word ‘star’? Because the 5 seeds in the fruit are arranged in a star-like manner (see Photo A. Locate all three photos (A, B & C) mentioned in this write-up at http://www.spyghana.com/alasa-african-star-apple-chrysophyllum-albidum/). This star-like arrangement of seeds in the fruits is the common feature shared by all the members of the genus Chrysophyllum including C. cainito and C. oliviforme. Do not confuse star apple with starfruit (Averrhoa carambola) in which the fruit itself is star-shaped.

Used without any modifier, the name ‘star apple’ may specifically refer to Chrysophyllum cainito, which is native to the West Indies or Caribbean. How then do we identify ‘alasa’ without having to ‘chant’ or ‘scribble’ botanical names? Precede the name star apple with the word African, which serves two purposes: helping to distinctively identify the plant and showing the origin of the species. Thus, the common name of ‘alasa’ is African star apple.

Botanically, African star apple is known as Chrysophyllum albidum. Like most systematic names, C. albidum is a perfect Latinized description of the plant. For your information, botanical names are never Latin names. In fact, the names may originate in any language but Greek and Latin are the most common ones. Whichever language is the source; the name, once derived, is strictly written according to Latin grammar; ie, the name is Latinized. This principle holds true for all scientific names—botanical, zoological and bacteriological names.

And ‘alasa’ offers us a good chance to refresh our memories on some botanical titbits we might have missed in our secondary school days. And there we go! The genus name Chrysophyllum, of Greek origin, comprises two parts—the prefix Chryso- meaning gold coloured and –phyllum meaning leaf. Thus, the Latinized term Chrysophyllum describes the yellow or gold colour of the abaxial side (underside) of the leaves of some star apple plants (see Photo C).

The specific epithet albidum translates into English as white. This name also describes the white milky sap produced when the fruit is cut (see Photo B). Thus, the entire botanical name Chrysophyllum albidum literally means a plant whose leaves are gold coloured and whose fruits produce white milky sap. Some authors use ‘white’ in place of ‘African’, giving rise to ‘white star apple’.

Just take a second look at the spelling of the name. You’ll notice that the two names rhyme. Why? The ending of scientific names is based on the gender of the words as determined by the source language. Tread carefully! Grammar zone! In most natural languages, a noun is masculine, feminine or neuter. However, nouns remain the same irrespective of their case in sentences but adjectives and pronouns are inflected for both gender and case (eg, Ama beats Kofi & Kofi beats Ama but She beats him & He beats her).

In Chrysophyllum albidum, the word Chrysophyllum is neuter in gender (cf: medium & forum with media & fora). In consequence, the specific epithet must be inflected to reflect the neutrality of the genus name; hence, the ending ‘um’ as seen in albidum. Conversely, in the name Acacia albida, the genus name Acacia ends in ‘a’ showing that it is feminine (cf: formula & alga with formulae & algae). Thus, the same expression ‘albidum’ is rewritten to agree with the gender of the genus name; hence Acacia albida. Say something about this: Periarius albidus (cf: fungus & stimulus with fungi & stimuli).

Have you noticed that botanical naming is highly organized? Compare Pisum sativum, Oryza sativa and Raphanus sativus. How does this knowledge benefit us as teachers/students? English nouns of Latin origin that end in ‘us’ are masculine; such nouns are pluralized by replacing the ‘us’ with ‘i’ (eg, alumnus becomes alumni). What? That ‘alumnus’ is a male graduate but ‘alumna’ is a female one. And that ‘alumni’ and ‘alumnae’ are their respective plurals. Being a natural language, English allows the term alumni to be used to describe a mixture of both male and female graduates (cf: old boys). Notice that the ‘i’ at the end of these nouns is long—it is pronounced ‘ai’ (eg, fungi /fangai/ and alumni /alamnai) but the ‘ae’ is pronounced ‘ii’ (eg, formulae /formulii/ and alumnae /alamnii/).

Returning to African star apple, we end by looking at its ecology. The seed of African star apple is highly recalcitrant (a recalcitrant seed is one that dies once it dries). Thus, seeds must be sown fresh—once extracted or removed from the fruit. Seeds germinate 4–6 wk after sowing. Typical of most endospermic seeds, African star apple seeds produce long hypocotyl hooks which eventually straighten up sending the cotyledons into the air. Thus, germination is truly epigeal. Because the seeds are endospermic, the cotyledons turn into leaves that persist.

Members of the Sapotaceae family are slow-growing, explaining why African star apple seedlings will take more 15 to 20 years to begin bearing fruits.

Just drop a comment! And we’ll add more. Long live practising teachers!

Idris Pacas

020 9101533 & iddrisuabdulai12@yahoo.com

Columnist: Pacas, Idris