Exotic edibles & tongue trickery at Cockrell Butterfly Center: Trip out your taste buds Aug. 28!

The tropical vegetation in the Cockrell Butterfly Center features a number of plants with edible fruits. Some, such as coffee, chocolate, pineapple and papaya, are familiar and readily available in local stores.

But most visitors — unless they hail from equatorial climes — are probably  unfamiliar with caimito, jaboticaba, calabash, Barbados cherry or miracle fruit.

One of our favorites is the jaboticaba, a small tree that bears grape-sized fruits in clusters growing directly out of the smooth-barked trunk — very bizarre looking! The tasty pulp inside the rather thick, purplish-black skins is translucent white and juicy, surrounding one to three seeds. Very popular in its native Brazil, jaboticaba fruit is eaten fresh or used in jellies and drinks.

JaboticabaWe get many questions about the calabash tree, which hails from the dry forests of Central America. Strictly speaking, its grapefruit-sized (or larger), green fruits are not edible, although cows and horses may sometimes break open the thick shell to eat the pulp and seeds inside. In El Salvador, the seeds are ground to make the traditional beverage horchata. More often, people dry and hollow out the shell, sometimes carving the surface, and use it as a cup or dipper.

One of our most prolific fruit bearers is the caimito (also called custard apple or star apple) from the West Indies. This tree’s dark green leaves are a shimmering copper on their undersides—the scientific name Chrysophyllum, which means “golden leaf,” is very appropriate! The fruits are the size of large plums and the color of eggplants; inside they have a dense, lavender flesh that is somewhat sweet. The milky sap is quite sticky, so it’s best to eat these with a spoon. (However, we feed most of them to our butterflies, since none of us like the taste much.)

The Barbados cherry has red, cherry-sized fruits that are a little tarter than cherries. Some people grow a miniature form of this tree here in Houston, but the much smaller fruits of this plant are relished only by birds.

"Miracle Fruit"Finally, “miracle fruit,” the color and size of a cranberry, is borne on a shrub from West Africa. One doesn’t eat the fruit for itself, as it is quite insipid, but rather for the amazing transformation of one’s taste perception that results from eating it. Chewing on this berry makes even the sourest lemon taste sweet; it was apparently used in its place of origin to make sour fruits and bitter roots more palatable.

You can experience this interesting sensation yourself if you come to our special “taste-tripping” event on Aug. 28.

WHAT: Adult Hands-On Class — “Taste Bud Tripping with Miracle Fruit”
WHEN: Wednesday, August 28, 6 p.m.
HOW MUCH: Tickets $50, Members $40

The miracle fruit berry from west Africa tricks your taste buds and makes food taste sweeter. Even the most sour and tart foods, such as lemons, are transformed into sweet morsels. Experience the magic of miracle fruit along the dramatically lit trails of the Cockrell Butterfly Center rainforest. After you eat the exotic berry, sample food and drink selected for the delicious impact the miracle fruit has on its taste. Book your taste buds on a trip of a lifetime at HMNS and see why—out of all of the delicious fruits of the Cockrell Butterfly Center flora—the miracle berry fruit is arguably the sweetest.

For tickets call (713) 639-4629 or click here to purchase them online in advance.

Taste Bud Trickery

Imagine taking a huge bite into a juicy lemon.

Miracle Fruit

I’m sure most of you, like me, cringe at the thought. But, instead of lip puckering bitterness imagine tasting a very sweet lemonade flavor. I know it sounds crazy, but this is the effect that miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) has on your taste buds. It is a small red fruit that, when chewed, tricks the tongue into perceiving any sour or bitter foods as sweet. The effects last from 20 to 40 minutes, and essentially turns your tongue into one giant sweet taste bud.

Miracle fruit is from West Africa, and was traditionally eaten before meals to make sour porridges and soups more palatable. The plant itself is a very slow growing shrub that reaches a mature height of between 10 and 20 ft. With minute white flowers that turn into red fruits when ripe, they are about the size of an oval cranberry. The fruit contains a protein called miraculin that is thought to bind to the sweet receptors on your tongue, rewiring them to react to sour flavors instead of sweet.

Miracle fruit has been known to the western world since the 18th century, and in the 70′s there was an attempt to market it as a low calorie alternative to sugar. But it was classified by the FDA as a food additive, instead of a sweetener, which caused it to be lost in years of testing and red tape. Many believe that the decision by the FDA to classify it as a food additive was heavily influenced by the sugar industry, for fear that a healthier natural sweetener would affect sugar sales.

Unopened Flower Cluster

Scientists are currently researching a more promising future for miracle fruit as an aid to cancer patients, who complain that the chemotherapy causes regular food to taste bland or metallic. However, more testing needs to be done and this may still be a few years from reality.

Today miracle fruit is enjoyed at “taste-tripping parties“ where everyone is given a miracle fruit upon arrival. The party-goers then chew the nearly flavorless fruit for about a minute, making sure the juices coat their tongues, and then the party begins as they make their way down the “taste-tripping” buffet. Foods usually found at these parties include cheeses that now taste like cheesecake, Tabasco that tastes more like honey barbecue sauce, apple cider vinegar that tastes just like apple juice, bitter beers that taste like milk shakes and of course lemons that now taste like sweet lemonade.

I have personally tried this fruit on several occasions and can tell you, its name does not lie. It is a very unique and miraculous sensation to eat something that your brain knows to be sour, but all you can taste is sweet.

For anyone interested in trying this strange experience, miracle fruits can be purchased at many different sites on the Internet. Or if you would just like to see one of the plants up close and personal, you can stop by the Cockrell Butterfly Center and see our miracle fruit bush, which is currently in bloom.