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Acai, the Wonder-fruit

 It was not long after arriving in Belem for the second time, and on this occasion to live there, that I was introduced to acai. It is a staple of the majority of people living in the Amazon Region though Belem seems to be a significant centre of trade in the fruit. Acai juice, also referred to as acai "wine", is a deep burgundy colour with a unique smell and taste. Despite its alternate name is non-alcoholic and is considered to be a food rather than a drink.

Acai berries, from which the juice is derived, are small cherry-sized fruit that grow on slender palm trees. Once you recognise the palm they can been seen throughout the city of Belem, in the surrounding countryside, and along the margins of the Guama river that feeds into the end of the Amazon river between Belem and the island of Marajo. In fact they are visible almost everywhere within Amazonia - thousands of kilometres of river.

The palms are tall and slender, growing singly or more usually in a clump. Small fronds sprout at the base of the palm while up to 25 metres above the ground the stem breaks out into multiple fronds each two to three metres in length. Beneath the lofty fronds will emerge the panicles - initially loaded with florets which, after pollination, eventually become green berries before ripening to a dark burgundy, almost black fruit.

The fruit on some trees remain green. I was advised by Dr Heinz Muller, of EMBRAPA, that the difference in colour is a natural anomaly but that the trees themselves are of the same species and not a sub-species. Oddly, the green ripe fruit is known as white acai.

Dr Muller, now retired, described how EMBRAPA (Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária) a Brazilian government organisation that undertakes agricultural research, has been working to find ways to develop acai into a crop that can be grown under plantation conditions. Practical knowledge arising from research conducted at EMBRAPA is passed on to farmers.

Acai palms are graceful, nice looking palms and thus, environmental conditions permitting, would make a pleasingly decorative addition to a garden as, in fact, they do in many places.


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