Naranjilla, means “little orange,” in Ecuador. It’s a flowering, fruiting shrub–both beautiful and eerily other-worldly because of its unusual appearance. The white, 5-petaled flowers are smooth and white on top and covered with thick, pulpy, purple fuzz on the underside. The centers have a yellow stamen.
The delicacy of the flowers and new leaves is offset by the jarring contrast of inch-thick, coarse, woody stalks and great big leaves that can be 1-2 feet long. The stems are menacing, all soft and furry but with wicked thorns.
I never paid much attention to the two naranjilla plants growing in our Cotacachi garden because I found them rather unappealing and scary. They telegraphed a clear message, “Stay away from my pretty little flowers and soft orange fruit, you hungry predator.” And they are decidedly user-unfriendly.
One of the narajilla shrubs is about 8 feet tall with hairy foot-long leaves that are beautiful shades of green and purple. However, the mature leaves can be quite dangerous to the non-attentive. Check out the stubby brown thorns lurking along the veins. Ouch!
Whatever you do, don’t get tangled up in one of these plants like I did when I was trying to photograph a flower up close. I thought I’d stumbled into the little shop of horrors!
Don’t be fooled by this innocent-looking new leaf. It may appear soft and harmless but the thorns will soon pop out to snare you.
Not only does touching the fuzzy beauties make my skin crawl, they have short brown, very sharp thorns that grow under the leaf and also on the top. A deadly double whammy if you happen to grab one or accidentally brush up against one.
The stems or stalks that the leaves grow on have bigger thorns. Even the fuzzy fruit is no fun because it’s covered with annoying hairs that stick to my fingers.The brown-haired globes on the plant are first green. Then they turn various shades of yellow and orange as they ripen.
The ones in our Cotacachi garden must be the wild variety, since cultivated ones don’t have all these annoying thorns, barbs and spikes. Who wants to navigate a mine field just to end up with a little bit of sour green juice? Not me.
I suggest getting no closer to one of these plants than about 3 feet. Let someone else pick the prickly things and depilitarize them up for you.
Better yet, play it safe and only buy them in the market, clean-shaven, tamed and presentable. Believe me, a good naranjilla is a hairless narajilla.
Gary likes the juice a lot, but then, he also loves grenadilla and tree tomatoes. I can take it or leave it.
When I asked our landlord what they were, he picked a few, scrubbed the hairs off and handed them to me. He instructed me to let them ripen 8-10 days before consuming them.
Some people slice the fruit in half and squeeze the juice directly into their mouths, discarding the skin. Some like to eat it with a bit of salt.
The taste is tangy and citrusy, somewhat like a combination of lemon and pineapple.
There are a number of exotic fruits in Ecuador produce markets that are usually juiced instead of eaten whole, so I don’t buy them, lazy creature that I am.
Similar to naranjilla, taxo, tree tomato and grenadilla are not very sweet and I don’t usually want to bother with juicing and straining out the seeds. It’s so much easier to juice pineapple, bananas, papayas or mangoes or pop a piece into your mouth without much prep work at all.
Naranjilla in Ecuador is known as Solanum quitoense Lam. and is in the nightshade family. It is also called nuqui or naranjilla de Quito.
You’ll find it referred to by many names in South America- lulun, lulo, lulo de perro, lulo morado, lulo de castilla and toronja. To the Incas it was lulum.
Spineless naranjilla is thought to have originated in Ecuador, Peru and south Columbia. The spiny ones mostly grow in other parts of Colombia, in Costa Rica and Venezuela.
There is another sweet, less juicy strain of naranjilla that grows east of Quito near Baza. 90% of Ecuador’s commercial naranjilla is grown around the Pastaza River in the Amazon.
For years the U. S. tried to cultivate naranjilla without much success when seeds were first sent from Ecuador. North Americans sampling the juice at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York got very excited about the unusual taste. As late as the 1950’s North America was still having difficulties cultivating the fruit, which is very susceptible to nemotodes and wind.
Naranjilla juice is made into wine in Colombia. It’s delicious made into ice cream, sherbet, jelly, sauces, pies and other desserts.
If you decide to make juice, just squeeze, strain, sweeten and enjoy. But not me. I’m too afraid of ending up with hairy juice.
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