December 2015
The Magic of Gardening

A Sweet Miracle

  Miracle fruit tastes very bland, but its effect on foods with high acid content is curious. A glycoprotein in the fruit makes a naturally sour flavor taste very sweet.

When I worked at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens Extension office I had a few unusual questions. One in particular that I was thinking about recently involved a client asking about a "fairy tree" she had heard about on a Martha Stewart TV program. The caller said that when you eat the fruit it makes everything you eat afterwards taste sweet. I thought to myself, "Do you also see pink elephants?" But I decided not to verbalize my thoughts.

I searched extensively for any leads and could not find any reference to a fairy tree. The questioner did tell me the plant was a small tree or bush that produced red berries. She has a few other details such as the berries had the miraculous ability to cause anything acidic eaten for the next several minutes to taste very sweet. At that point, I was beginning to question Martha Stewart’s veracity.

I am a firm believer that every question has an answer. On the other hand, some people get upset when the answer is "I don’t know. Why don’t you go ask Martha?" Thankfully, we now have the Internet to help with tricky or difficult questions. Internet search engines are amazing tools and I used it to solve part of the mystery. When I gave up on the fairy tree search I typed the phrases: "everything taste sweet" and "Martha Stewart." The first result was an answer page on Yahoo where someone had posted the question, "What is the name of the plant that makes everything taste sweet that was featured on the Martha Stewart show?" I knew I had hit pay dirt.

The answer posted said the plant is called "Miracle Fruit" (not fairy tree) and from there I found the scientific name. I felt proud of myself and mentioned the "Miracle Fruit" to Melanie Johns, the taxonomist at the Botanical Gardens, and she said in perfect Latin, "Oh, you mean Synsepalum dulcificum." She then went on to give me several details about the plant and the fruit she has grown in the garden’s conservatory in the past (she is such a "know-it-all").

The rest of the mystery may never be solved. Specifically, from where did the name "fairy tree" come? I told the story of my research at the dinner table and my daughter came up with a reasonable hypothesis. She said, "I bet something was said about a ‘berry tree’ and the person heard ‘fairy tree.’" My daughter is no Google (she’s more like a "Yahoo"), but I think she may be on the right track.

This likely misunderstanding reminded me of a visit I got from a young newlywed who was trying to follow her mother-in-law’s handwritten recipe for her new husband’s favorite dish. She came in and said, "I have been all over town looking for a dash pepper and no one has even heard of this variety." I gave her a somewhat puzzled look and asked where she found the reference to this pepper and she said it was referenced in her mother-in-law’s handwritten recipe. As a smile came across my face, I asked her if she thought it was possible her mother-in-law was referring to a quantity of pepper rather than a type of pepper. The young lady’s face turned as red as if she had seen a ghost, or eaten a ghost pepper I should say. There is always the possibility that I jumped to the wrong conclusion in both cases. If so, I would appreciate you letting me know if you have any information on a "fairy tree" or a "dash pepper." I tried the Internet; so there is no need to look there.

The question still remains, "Does the fruit really make everything sweet?" Amazingly, the fruit does make other foods with high acid content and a naturally sour flavor taste very sweet. The plant is not cold hardy in our area, but could be grown indoors in a sunny window and even moved out in summer. There have been numerous attempts to commercialize the "Miracle Fruit" with little success, but if anyone can cause a shift in the market it’s Martha.

Scientists have isolated the glycoprotein that causes the taste modification effect, but the molecule is so large it is difficult to synthesize. Therefore, all attempts at using it as a sugar substitute have largely failed. It does however work well as fresh fruit. I think it would make a great practical joke to pull on a friend. The berry itself is described as very bland; but just imagine your friends’ surprise when they taste your new "sweet lemon" just after eating the berry.

If you want to purchase a plant or seeds or even tablets, you can find them for sale on the Internet. This might make a unique Christmas present for someone trying to cut back on the sweets over the holidays.

Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.