Phalsa is the name given to small fruits of the tree with the scientific name Grewia asiatica. Their aspect is very similar to black currants, which are produced by a completely different plant growing in Europe and Asia. It is very easy to visually confuse the two fruits. Grewia asiatica is a tree rather than a shrub and is found in India, Pakistan, Cambodia and other countries of southern Asia. Phalsa is also widely cultivated in areas with tropical climates.
The phalsa tree has rough bark and braches that hang towards the ground. Phalsa reaches a maximum height of 5 to 7 meters. It has large oval-shaped leaves, with pointed tips and a thick structure.
The small phalsa tree has a layer of thick hair that covers both young stems and its flowers. Leaves are large when compared with the size of the tree and have a length between 7.5 and 20 centimetres, with a width of 5 to 16 centimetres. The base is obliquely heart-shaped, with an obliquely ovate, sometimes obscurely 3-lobed general shape and a pointy tip. The yellow 2 cm phalsa flowers are located on axillary cymes with a high density. The small round fruits are purple and turn black when ripe. They are edible, with a sweet but acid taste and a sizeable seed in the middle. During May and June, which are the hottest months in India, the fruits are widely found in markets and shops.
Phalsa is a hard fruit to store and transport because it has a short shelf life and is very fragile. As a result, phalsa is rarely available outside of its native range. It is an excellent choice during the hot summer, due to its very refreshing effect. The most popular way to consume it is raw, with some added salt and black pepper. For longer preservation, a good option is to turn the fruits into syrup.
Bark, leaves, fruits, roots.
The phalsa fruit has been used for a long time for its medical benefits. It can treat stomach conditions and is known for its coolant and astringent effects. The phalsa tree was mentioned in ancient Vedic texts, its bark was a cure for rheumatism and also used as a demulcent. A powder prepared from the leaves has a strong antiseptic effect and is able to kill the E. coli bacteria, as well as treat pustular infections. The fruit is an excellent coolant during the summer months, when it provides much needed hydration.
The phalsa fruit is a good choice for the diet of people who suffer from diabetes. Due to its low amount of sugars, it has a low glycemic index and doesn’t cause a dangerous spike in blood glucose levels after consumption.
Most fruits with a purple skin are packed with antioxidants and the phalsa is no exception. It is rich in compounds with a potent action against free radicals and can protect cells from the effects of radiation. Antioxidant elements found in both the fruit and the leaves are very effective against breast and liver tumours. The phalsa fruit has traditionally been used for its antiseptic properties and modern research validated the ancient claims. Extracts were found to have a particularly strong action against fungi.
The old Vedic use against rheumatism survives to this day and the root is still employed as a treatment for it by Santhal tribesmen. An infusion from the stem bark is used as a demulcent but the bark has industrial applications as well, in the production of ropes and refining of sugar. The buds also have medical uses, as well as the leaves, which counter pustular eruptions.
Immature phalsa fruits have an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory effect and are used to cure fever and various heart, respiratory and blood diseases. Rheumatism, arthritis, diarrhea and pain can be treated with an infusion from the bark. Traditional medical practitioners treat urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases with phalsa leaves.
Phalsa leaves are moderately antiseptic, which has a number of applications. It is possible to prepare them into a paste after leaving them in water for one night, then apply it externally as a cure for skin issues like eczema, pustular skin eruptions, cuts, burns, boils and other forms of inflammation.
The Vinayaka Mission’s College of Pharmacy from Salem, Tamil Nadu, India, has tested the alleged benefits of the root bark and discovered that it is an effective painkiller and anti-inflammatory agent.
Due to the high content of antioxidant compounds, extracts from the leaves and fruits might be useful in the fight against cancer. The fruit pulp reduces the risk of cervical and breast tumours, as well as blood cancer, according to the results of a study on mice.
An old home-made cure for stomach pain mixes 25 to 30 ml of phalsa juice with three grams of carom seeds. The resulting drink should be heated up and consumed. Phalsa sherbet is said to be effective against chest, stomach, sour burping and burning eyes.
Combining fruit juice with rose water and some sugar is a traditional counter for stomach pain, vomiting, nausea and other digestive issues. People with breathing difficulties can drink a warm mixture of phalsa and ginger juice, with some rock salt.
Phalsa fruits can be consumed raw and are entirely edible, including the seeds that have a nice crunchy taste. Large sized fruits have two seeds in the middle, while smaller ones only have one.
The phalsa seed is very hard to remove, which makes preparing the juice a complicated task. A simpler way is to just use a powerful blender to process the whole fruits. In order to make them softer, leave the fruits in water for one night. Boiling in sugar makes blending even easier and adds some sweetness. As soon as the blended fruits become pulpy, it is possible to use cheesecloth to separate the juice. Another juicing option is to squeeze the fruits by hand, after one night of soaking to soften them up. Of course, the amount of juice extracted is smaller.
Phalsa juice is known to ferment really fast, so it should be used as soon as you prepare it. It is one of the main uses for the fruit, the other being as an ingredient for sherbet.
Boiling the juice with sugar produces syrup that can be used to complement many sweet dishes. It can be added in bakery products, pies, ice creams and tea. It can replace black currant syrup in any recipe and is considered to be a local delicacy in north India. You can also add it to salads and breakfast cereals.
Habitat and cultivation
The native area of Grewia asiatica is in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia. It was introduced and cultivated in Indonesia and the Philippines at the start of the 20th century. Phalsa is found in large numbers in the Philippines today, especially in lowland areas of the Luzon province where it produces a lot of fruits. It is also grown in small numbers in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, where it remains an exotic species.
It is possible to cultivate phalsa outside of Asia but this is rare and only done for research purposes. Some universities in Florida and Puerto Rico grow the fruit in their gardens and labs in order to study its properties.
The phalsa tree doesn’t survive frost but it is quite tolerant otherwise. Phalsa tree resists drought and can grow in various climates and soils, including poor ones.