Rose apple


Perfectly suited to life in Phuket: the rose apple – chomphuu in Thai.
A Rose Apple by any other name

Things are different now. Not the most incisive observation, you may say, but back in the days of my youth, our lives were a lot more innocent.

We didn’t have any drugs or other such illegalities at my school, for example. Unless tobacco counts, of course – sneaking out of the school grounds for a sly fag was about as errant as our behavior got.

Before any transatlantic types start to wonder why I would have thought that having a sly fag between classes was a good idea, it has a lot more to do with the inhalation of tobacco smoke than something significantly more unsavory.

We got into huge trouble if a teacher heard us swearing, even from a distance. Thinking about it now, they probably just guessed. And got it right. Today, it’s nothing for a teacher to be told to “**** off” to his face; there’s nothing he can do, as the child is simply “expressing himself”. A child does, of course, have the absolute right to express his individuality in today’s world; perish the thought that some may consider his attitude to be rude.

The hands of the police are equally tied. Any misdemeanors by the youth of the more “developed” nations are dealt with nowadays by do-gooder counselors who talk through the transgressors’ problems in an effort to modify future inappropriate behavior. What utter twaddle.

Not that many years ago, if the police caught you red-handed doing something you really shouldn’t have been doing, then you knew you were in trouble, mainly due to the fact that the policeman gave you a severe clip around the ear, leaving you in no doubt that your behavior was “inappropriate”. It didn’t need talking through or analyzing; your physical pain and ringing ears did the job very well. Behavior modified on the spot.

Next was the long walk home, and the handover to your father. He’s not a happy man at this stage – after all there’s a policeman at the door with an errant son in tow. You’re now officially in trouble again, and punishment number two ensues – more clips around the ear. This time it’s doubled – one clip for the daft behavior and another for getting caught. It was a system that worked.

I have a romantic fondness for apple trees. We didn’t have much in the way of sweets; my treat was my grandmother giving me a penny all to myself to spend on sweets. So we had to improvise. Apple trees were always a favorite target, but there was a problem – the best trees were always in somebody else’s garden.

This was where “scrumping” came in. It was usually a two-lad affair. One would keep watch for that grumpy old Mr Jones bloke, while the other would hop over the fence, climb the tree and grab all the Granny Smiths they could carry. This was the stage at which Mr Jones would inevitably appear out of nowhere, waving his stick and screaming at the top of his lungs about “you bloody kids”, as we scampered down the back lane – we knew that if he ever caught us that stick would be put to effective use. And we knew we would have deserved it.

We don’t have much in the way of apple trees in the traditional sense here in Thailand. They do grow a few varieties further north where it’s a little cooler, but in our neck of the woods we have to make do with what are known in these parts as water apples or rose apples. Thais know it as chomphuu-saaraek. The easiest way I know to remember this particular Thai name is to say it exactly as it sounds: “shampoo”. Scientific types refer to it as the eugenia aquea.

They have very little to do with their more traditional cousins, the ones more associated with the temptation of Adam and Eve or inflicting cranial damage on dead physicists with big hair. I digress. The rose apple is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit boring. It tastes of exactly what it most consists of – water.

It looks a bit like a kind of small, waxy pear, between five and eight cm long. It is created by an evergreen tree which will grow up to about eight meters tall. More often the trees have a short, crooked trunk branching close to the ground, and a non-symmetrical, open crown.

The leathery, light-green, short-pointed leaves are about 20 centimeters long, and almost hide the faintly-fragrant flowers, which appear in clusters of three to seven. Thin-skinned and shining, the fruit varies from white to various shades of red. There may be a few small seeds in the fruit, but generally they’re seedless. At least you’re not likely to be spitting out seeds every few seconds.

The trees are happiest in “moist tropical lowlands” – Phuket fits the bill perfectly. In theory, it grows best in any area with a fairly long dry season. It’s not particularly drought-resistant though, and requires a reliable water supply. The best way to cheat this is to plant them along the sides of streams or ponds, spaced five to seven meters apart.

The species presumably originated in Southeast Asia, but nowadays it appears from India through southeast Asia to the Pacific islands. It even features in Fijian mythology.

There are definite flowering seasons for the water apple; often two, sometimes three in a year, but the timing varies from year to year. They commonly flower early or late in the dry season, and the fruit ripens 30 to 40 days after the flowers first make an appearance.

Propagation is usually by seeds, but if you’re an adventurous type, or even a gardener who, unlike myself, actually knows what he’s doing, the water can be air-layered or even grafted onto some of its close relatives, such as the java apple.

I’m reliably informed that it even has medicinal uses for a number of maladies – apparently a decoction of the astringent bark is a local application on certain fungal complaints. Unfortunately I haven’t the faintest idea what that actually means.

The water apple, or rose apple, or shampoo, whatever you want to call it, is perfectly suited to life in Phuket. The trees do a great job of filling large chunks of your garden, but I just wish their fruit tasted a little more interesting. Had these things existed in my Yorkshire youth, I doubt we’d have bothered scrumping them. Not really worth a clip round the ear from the local bobby for this one.

Time for a sly smoke.



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