The scientific name of ackee, Blighia sapida, is in honour of Captain William Blight, who is credited with taking the fruit to the Kew-based Royal Botanic Gardens in England from Jamaica way back in 1793. It was he who also introduced this species to science. The plant owes its common name, ackee, to Akan akye fufo, a staple starch food of people inhabiting West Africa.
It is believed that prior to 1778 slave ships transported the fruit of this tree from West Africa to Jamaica. Since the fruit was first introduced in the Caribbean islands, it became an integral and major part of various cuisines in the region. Currently, ackee is cultivated in various places having tropical and sub-tropical climatic conditions across the globe.
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An evergreen tree, ackee grows up to a height of 10 meters. This tree has a small trunk, but its crown is dense. The leaves of ackee are paripinnately compound, each measuring anything between 15 cm and 30 cm (5.9 inches to 11.8 inches) in length.
Each leaf is accompanied by 6 to 8 leathery leaflets whose shape varies from elliptical to ovate to oblong. The leaflets measure between 8 cm and 12 cm in length each, while they are 5 cm to 8 cm (2.0 inches to 3.1 inches) broad.
The flowers of ackee appear in fragrant inflorescences, which measure up to 20 cm in length. The inflorescences are made up of unisexual flowers, which blossom throughout the warmer months. Each ackee flower is made up of five petals having greenish-white hue.
The ackee flowers give way to pear-shaped fruits, which when ripe change their color from green to vivid red to yellowish-orange. The ripened fruits split open on their own exposing three large, glossy black seeds. Each of these seeds are encircles by a soft or spongy creamy white to yellowish flesh, which is known as the aril.
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Ackee contains several nutrients, making this tropical-to-sub-tropical fruit useful for therapeutic as well as culinary purposes. This delicious fruit is rich in dietary fiber content and, hence, it aids digestion, bulks up stool and also does away with constipation.
The dietary fiber works by encouraging peristaltic motion inside the intestines, which, in turn, facilitated in moving the ingested food through the gut, thereby putting off cramping, bloating, constipation and other types of inflammation in the colon. In fact, if unchecked, these problems may result in more serious health issues like colorectal cancer. In addition, dietary fiber aids in lowering the cholesterol levels in the bloodstream, thereby boosting the health of the heart.
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People struggling with high blood pressure will also find ackee fruit beneficial. In fact, nearly all practitioners of natural health recommend people with hypertension to intake more potassium. Ackee is beneficial for them because it is loaded with this essential mineral.
The elevated level of potassium in ackee serves as a vasodilator, thereby lessening the pressure and burden of the cardiovascular system in pumping blood to the different parts of the body. In addition, potassium also reduces the risks of developing atherosclerosis and protects the arteries and other blood vessels from damage.
Ackee is not loaded with empty carbs as well as calories, but it contains rich amounts of complex carbs that help in generating energy required by the body and, at the same time, it controls the blood sugar levels in the body.
As the nutrients in ackee prevent the blood glucose levels obtained from simple sugars from fluctuating, this fruit is effective in preventing type 2 diabetes. In fact, the elevated levels of dietary fiber in ackee are also useful in checking the levels of glucose as well as insulin in the blood stream.
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Apart from its influence on the blood pressure, ackee also contains a very impressive variety of helpful fatty acids such as linoleic acid, palmitic acid and stearic acid. These acids are basically unsaturated fats, which are not only essential for improving the health of your heart, but also lower the levels of bad or LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream.
Protein is among the vital constituents in any healthy diet. Obtaining this nutrient from ackee, a very delectable fruit, is a wonderful idea. Our body requires protein, which forms the basis of all cells, muscles and tissues, in addition to other vital features of our body, to replenish as well as regenerate these parts.
Although ackee does not contain loads of protein or it is reputed for containing high amounts of this nutrient, compared to other fruits, the protein content in ackee is remarkably high.
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Ackee also contains several essential minerals, such as calcium, iron, phosphorus and zinc. All these essential minerals contribute greatly to healthier bone formation and maintenance, in addition to preventing demineralization and bone loss. When one intakes a consistent amount of essential minerals through their diet, it helps to inhibit, stop or even reverse certain conditions like osteoporosis as we grow older. As a result, we not only live longer, but also more healthily.
Most vegetables and fruits contain vitamin C, which is essential for several bodily functions as well as to protect us from various diseases. Ackee also contains sufficient amounts of this vitamin. As ackee contains elevated levels of ascorbic acid, consuming this fruit helps to perk up our immune system by encouraging white blood cell (leukocytes) formation.
At the same time, the antioxidant properties of vitamin C help to prevent cellular mutation and many chronic diseases. Aside from these, vitamin C forms an essential part of collagen, the substance necessary for the body to make blood vessels, tissues and muscles.
People suffering from anemia actually have a deficit of iron in their body. In other words, they may not be ingesting enough iron through their diet. Ackee is rich in iron content and, hence, consumption of this fruit helps to meet the iron requirements of our body.
When you consume adequate amounts of ackee, it ensures that you do not suffer from the side effects and symptoms related to anemia, including debility, light-headedness, digestive problems and cognitive disorders. As most of us are aware, iron is a vital constituent of hemoglobin, which is essential for producing red blood cells (erythrocytes) that transport oxygen to different parts of our body.
Aside from the ackee fruit, its seeds as well as the leaves and bark of the tree possess therapeutic properties and have different medical applications. People in Brazil take small doses of a watery extract of ackee seed repeatedly to drive out parasites.
Following the administration of the aqueous extract, the patients are given an oily or saline purgative. In Cuba, people add sugar and cinnamon to the ripened arils and consume this blend in the form of a febrifuge. This blend is also used for treating dysentery.
In Ivory Coast, the bark of ackee tree is blended with pungent spices to prepare a salve, which is applied topically to alleviate pain. Similarly, the foliage of the herb is pulverized and applied on one's forehead to get relief from acute headaches. Even the leaves of ackee tree are crushed, blended with salt and used as poultices on ulcers.
The juice extracted from the leaves is used in the form of eye drops to treat conjunctivitis and ophthalmia. People in Colombia use the leaves as well as bark of ackee tree in the form of a stomachic. The leaves are used to prepare various preparations for treating conditions like yellow fever and epilepsy.
Before harvesting ackee, one must ensure that the fruit should open completely or partially on the tree. After the fruit has "yawned", the seeds are disposed of, while the arils that are fresh as well as firm are parboiled in saline water or in milk. Subsequently, they are fried lightly in butter. There is no doubt that ackee fruits are very delectable.
These fruits are consumed raw as well as after cooking. People in Jamaica usually cook ackee together with tomatoes, onions and codfish. After the fruits are parboiled, they may be added to salt-pork and scallions, a stew of beef, thyme as well as other seasonings. Occasionally, these fruits are also prepared in the form of a curry and consumed along with rice.
Ackee food preparations are served in home as well as in the dining rooms of restaurants and hotels. In Africa, people often eat the fruits raw or prepare soup with them. Some even consume ackee fruits after frying them in oil.
The ackee tree grows in tropical and sub-tropical regions. This species thrives well when grown at altitudes of 900 meters (3,000 feet) above sea level in Jamaica. Interestingly, the trees grown in Guatemala City do not produce fruits.
Usually, ackee trees are propagated from their seeds or by the shield-budding method. These trees actually display negligible variation. In greenhouses in Europe, cultivators make cuttings of mature shoots and root them in sand. These cuttings are raised in a loam and peat mixture. When grown in places having warmer climatic conditions, ackee trees grow faster and need very little attention during their growth period.
In Jamaica, ackee trees flower as well as fruit throughout the year. On the other hand, trees belonging to this species flower during spring and fruit during the middle of summer in Florida. However, some trees may be found in bloom even during the fall. People in the Bahamas harvest two ackee crops every year. While the first crop occurs from February throughout April, the second one happens between July and October.
Notwithstanding the numerous benefits offered by ackee fruits, they are extremely toxic if consumed before they ripen. Hence, it is advisable that you should never eat an ackee fruit before it opens on its own partially or fully. Consuming ripened ackee fruits are safe. If consumed in an unripe condition, ackee fruits can result in a condition known as "Jamaican vomiting sickness".
Although rare, in very extreme instances, consumption of the unripe ackee fruit may even lead to coma and/ or death. This means that one needs to be very careful about where he/ she is getting the ackee for their favourite saltfish dish.