Not many consumers know the source of the ‘superfruit’ acai, the small berry-fruit-thingy taking off in grocery stores and smoothie shops across the US. This dark purple fruit (technically a drupe, but feel free to call it whatever you want) actually grows on a tall, branching palm tree found naturally in South America, particularly the Amazon river basin and estuary. A single tree commonly has 4–8 narrow, grey-colored stems and can reach a height of up to 80 feet. Green leaves are 2–3′ long and resemble a feather in shape. Each fruit contains a large seed which accounts for 60–80% of the volume of the fruit. The thin outer layer of the half-inch diameter “berry” is what we consume as a juice, powder, or pulp. Acai palm trees are also grown for their edible palm hearts, considered a delicacy because each heart that is harvested requires one of the tree’s stems to be cut down. Now, aren’t you glad your heart isn’t considered a delicacy?
Space Between Plants: 12′
Space Between Rows: 12′
Germination Soil Temperature: 70–80°F
Days for Germination: 25–30
Sow Indoors: Can sow indoors at anytime and transplant outdoors when plant reaches approximately 1′.
Sow Outdoors: Transplant outdoors in wetter weather, between 60–90°F.
Vegetative: Grows from suckers that can be taken from the base of the parent tree.
Prefers tropical climates, i.e., warm, humid weather with lots of precipitation. If attempting to grow acai in a climate zone lower than 9, you will need a greenhouse with 70–90% humidity and average temperatures of 75–80°F. These trees can survive in temperatures as low as 50°F but not for prolonged periods of time.
Natural: Partial sun, particularly in the early stages of growing. As this plant is accustomed to growing beneath a canopy of trees, it does not require much sunlight and can actually be damaged if overly exposed when a youngster. If growing indoors, next to (but not directly under) windows should be sufficient.
Artificial: A heat mat, rather than the more standard artificial lighting varieties, will help seedlings grow without the risk of burning.
Soil: Prefers loamy, sandy, wet soil similar to what is found in floodplains in South America. A pH of 4.5–6.5 will keep plants healthy and nourished.
Soilless: Will thrive in a more acidic soilless mix. Any mix with vermiculite and/or perlite mixed with organic matter will help plants grow.
Water: Requires high levels of water. This plant loves saturated roots, so water liberally, especially during dry spells.
Nutrients: Is a moderate to high feeder. Prepare soil prior to planting by adding organic composts such as manure and watering heavily. Will also benefit from fertilization with a balanced nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium mix beginning 4 to 6 weeks after planting and then every other month after.
Pruning: Central stem may be trimmed to help encourage shoot growth once plant has been established. Be sure to never trim your trees more than 1/3 of the total plant’s mass.
Mulching: While mulching is not necessary, if experiencing cooler weather, covering your plant with a cloth or straw mulch can help protect it while young.
Companions: Grows well with other tropical fruit trees and tropical flowers.
Harvest: It is unlikely that your tree will start producing berries prior to the fourth year of growth, so planting this specimen requires patience! When you are finally ready to harvest, pick your berries when they have ripened to a deep purple color and are not overly bitter. Harvesting can be done all year round; however, the tree itself may also be harvested for its “heart.” This is done by cutting down the entire tree, removing the bark, and cutting the flesh of the tree away from the heart.
Storage: Both the heart and berries of this plant will spoil quickly, so they should be used immediately if planning on eating them fresh.
Fun Fact: Unfortunately, the popularity of hearts of palm has decimated many palm tree populations in parts of South America, including the acai palm, as the extraction of the heart depends on killing the whole tree. The fruit may, in the end, become a knight in shining armor, since the rise of popularity of its berries as a cure-all superfood has led to larger cultivations of whole trees for longer periods of time. It is hoped by conservationists that the popularity of this berry will inspire producers in the coming years to plant more trees and keep them alive for their fruits rather than harvest them for their hearts.
Preserve: The best method for preserving acai berries is to freeze-dry them, as regular freezing will sap its nutrients. If a freeze drier is unavailable, berries can be pitted, pureed, and frozen.
Prepare: To juice the berries, soak them in cold water to loosen the skin and then press to remove the pit and juice. The skin and flesh can be mixed into yogurts, oatmeal, or eaten alone.
Nutritional: Hailed as a super fruit, acai berries contain similar nutritional content to other berries and fruits; however, the extent of their health impacts beyond these common benefits is likely highly overestimated. Much of its verified healthy properties are found in the form antioxidants, vitamin A and fatty acids such as omega-9 and omega-6.
Medicinal: In regions where the tree is endemic (e.g., Brazil and Columbia) the pulp of the acai berry has been traditionally used to treat diarrhea, fevers, and general aches and pains.
For a tasty morning meal, try this Acai Berry Smoothie.