The pitanga (scientific name Eugenia uniflora) is a medium-sized plant and a member of the Myrtaceae family. Its origin is on the Eastern shores of South America. It can be found from Suriname and French Guyana in the North to Argentina in the South, including areas of Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.
It has various names in these countries, the common name of pitanga is used in Brazil and Uruguay, while in the other countries it is named ñangapirí. It is a popular plant because of its richness in antioxidants, resistance to pests and easy cultivation. It can also be found in French Guyana and the Caribbean Islands, being named the Cerisier Carré in Haiti. It is a useful ornamental plant in gardens as a hedge and has been introduced for this purpose in the West Indies. It is today an invasive species in Bermuda, after ornamental plants have spread out of control. It can also be found in Florida, as an introduced species. In former Dutch Suriname, the plant is named Monkimonki Kersie or Montjimontji Kersie.
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The pitanga is medium sized and can be considered either a large shrub or a small tree. Pitanga has a slow rate of growth and can reach a maximum height of about 8 meters, with a conical shape. When hurt, the branches and leaves produce a resinous smell that can be quite unpleasant. Some people can even experience breathing problems from it. Leaves are about 4 cm in length, with a copper or bronze color when young and a deep green one at maturity. They become red during the winter months.
Flowers grow on long stalks and consist of four white petals with a distinctive group of stamens in the middle, which have a white color but the anthers at the end are yellow. Fruits are small, with a diameter between 2 and 4 cm. They are green in their youth but color up when ripe, becoming orange, dark red or maroon.
Fruits, leaves, bark.
The pitanga plant is important because of its edible berry. The taste is not the same for every cultivar and can be sweet or quite sour. This also depends on how ripe the fruit is, with the green or orange ones usually being sour, while the red or black ones are sweet. It can be prepared as a jam or a jelly and is also used to add flavour. It is very rich in vitamins A and C.
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The resinous smell emanated by the crushed leaves can repel flies and other insects, so they are placed on house floors in Brazil. They are also used in Uruguay to brew a special type of tea.
The pitanga has a number of uses in medicine and pharmacology. The essential oil extracted from the plant is known to kill viruses and fungi and also as an analgesic, antihypertensive, anti-diabetic and anti-tumour. Its antiviral action has been tested and confirmed against Trypanosoma cruzi, Leishmania amazonensis and in vitro Trichomonas gallinae. The plant can also reduce inflammation and is widely used in the traditional South American medicine as a treatment for various stomach issues.
An infusion prepared from the leaves is used in Brazil to treat stomach pain, as an astringent and to reduce fever. Leaf decoctions are prepared and used in Suriname as a cure for cold. Mixed with lemongrass, it is also believed to reduce high fever.
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Pitanga can also act as an anti-diarrhoeic and is known for the rich content of iron and iodine, as well as vitamins A and C. Other bioactive compounds found in the plant are rubixanthin, beta-cryptoxanthin, gamma-carotene or the antioxidant lycopene.
The berries have also been used in the tribal medicine of the area for a long time. Leaves are known in Brazil for their astringent properties, as well as a treatment of fever and digestive problems. The leaves can be processed to extract their essential oil, which can kill worms and treat common cold. People of Suriname prepare a leaf decoction for these purposes.
The book "Encyclopedia of World Medicinal Plants" lists additional uses for the leaves. According to it, they can reduce the levels of uric acid, high blood pressure and the amount of cholesterol in the blood. The bark is also potent against edema, eye infections, gout, intestinal disorders and diarrhea.
Modern medicine has also investigated the pitanga and discovered numerous health benefits of the plant. The handbook of Complementary and Alternative Medicine mentions that the plant's leaves are a treatment for sepsis, which is a potentially lethal disease.
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Essential oils extracted from the pitanga fruits are well-known for their actions against several types of pathogens. Among the bacteria killed by the pitanga oil are two types of Candida, Staph and listeria.
The leaves are very valuable for people who suffer from heart diseases, since they are a natural way to balance high blood pressure. The fruits are also good as a painkiller and also for their hypothermic qualities. Lab research done on rats has found that parts of the plant can be a counter against malaria.
The pitanga fruit has a nice exotic fragrance, which makes it useful in the cosmetics industry. For this purpose, it is sometimes added as an ingredient in soap, perfume, and shampoo or body oil.
Eugenia uniflora is cultivated in several countries. The pitanga shrubs can be used as hedgerows when planted no more than 3 feet apart but the rows usually have between 6 to 10 feet of space between them. Quarterly applications of half a pound of organic 6-6-6 fertilizer are recommended, as well as irrigation in dry locations. Watering the shrub for about 10 minutes every day will make the fruits grow bigger and become sweeter in taste. Mulching should be done at regular intervals. In cultivation, farmers normally wait until the shrub produces a large number of fruits for the first time, before pruning it. This usually happens after the plant is 6 or 7 years old. By that time, dead wood should be removed and the shape of the tree can be adjusted in order to make harvesting easier. The plant has the advantage of also being a useful ornamental one, able to grow in locations where other fruit trees are unable to.
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The pitanga does not need a lot of rain, can survive drought and thrives in sunny locations. The fruits mature very fast, in at most 3 or 4 weeks after blooming. In the right climate in tropical or subtropical areas, it tolerates most soils and needs almost no care. However, if rainfall is very low, the plant requires some irrigation.
Propagation can be easily done using the seeds.
In order to harvest the pitanga fruits to consume them fresh, it is best to make sure they are fully ripe. Unripe pitanga fruits are not sweet enough and their resin concentration is high. The pitanga skin is thin, fragile and can be easily damaged. When the fruit becomes orange or red it is not fully ripe but it can be eaten. It has more resin than usual but it is more resistant to damage. This is why it is usually harvested when it turns orange and companies that process the fruits normally buy them in that stage. For best results, place the fruits in vented clamshell containers right on the field. Try to chill these containers as soon as possible. It is easier to remove the pit from an orange unripe fruit than from a fully ripe one. A plant can produce between 6 and 8 pounds of fruits every year, which are collected once or twice per day in India.