It looked a lot like an alien invasion –’Day of the Triffids’ comes to mind. Enormous mounds of golfball-sized hairy red fruits, like peculiar creatures– swarmed the area around the market of San Cristóbal de las Casas in chariots wheeled around by local vendors. Rambutan is a fruit I was familiar with from Asian markets but for a moment, I was confused: Was it native to Mexico and I’d thought it was Asian?
In fact, no; The climate of the Soconusco region of Chiapas is well-suited to growing these and other exotic fruits of Southeast Asia. In the mid-1980s, Alfonso Pérez Romero, a Mexican specialist in botany, brought seeds, collected in Asia, of rambutan and other exotic fruits, recognizing the great demand by about 10 million Asians living in the United States (and Canada), not to mention the Asian population in Mexico itself.
It’s turned out to be a worthwhile commercial effort– thousands of tons of fruits are exported to the US each year, and its flavor is reported to be superior to the rambutan imported from SE Asia.
What was interesting to me was the flood of these into the streets of San Cristóbal. The trees must certainly be thriving, considering it’s only 30 years since the start of the efforts to establish them, and given the interruption by Hurricane Stan in 2005. After that storm, some of the exotic fruits that were part of the original project perished, but the rambutan thrived. It must be hardy, indeed, and my first question, then, is – is it invasive? And – what plants might be threatened by it?
More recently, however, another question came to my mind when I came across an article about a mysterious illness in India causing children to die suddenly – about 100 each year reported for 20 years (how many unreported deaths and over previous years?) . New research, published in the medical journal The Lancet suggests they were poisoned by a toxin contained in lychee fruits:
“Most of the victims were poor children in India’s main lychee-producing region who ate (lychee) fruit that had fallen on to the ground in orchards”
Lychee contains hypoglycin, a toxin that prevents the body from making glucose. Ackee fruit contains the same toxin and similar illnesses, though rarely fatal, have been reported in the Caribbean. Rambutan contains the very same toxin as both these fruits. In India, once health officials had a grasp of what was happening, and were able to deliver advice to parents that they should ensure young children got an evening meal and not eat too many of the lychees, the number of reported deaths dropped dramatically.
What about the children of Chiapas, Mexico? This new fruit is a novelty: sweet, refreshing and fun to eat. In this state where there is poverty and illiteracy, where this fruit has not been tested by centuries of traditional wisdom, it’s not a stretch to think that there may be not a few children who come upon these fruits and fill their little tummies. Has this information of the potential harm it can do reached those families who grow, harvest and sell this fruit? It’s fortunate that the native subsistence foods of corn and beans are ubiquitous and abundant where this alien fruit is grown.
Perhaps rambutan has been good for the economy of this region of Chiapas, but there’s always more to consider when it comes to agriculture and food supply.