Chewing gum, a popular confectionery treat, has its origins in a tree that is indigenous to Central America and called by many names, including the chico sapote, chicle and most commonly, the sapodilla tree. Sapodillas produce a type of sap called chicle, from which chewing gum is produced. The tree also produces an edible fruit that is very popular where the sapodilla grows.
The leaves of the sapodilla tree are 3 to 5 inches long and about 1 to 1 1/2 inches wide. They are elliptical, evergreen, glossy and dark green in color, with a rib down the center. They alternate along the branches. The flowers are small and bell-shaped and form on stems at the base of leaves. The fruit is oval to round, between 2 and 4 inches across with a smooth skin, and is covered in a coarse, sandy brown covering until ripe. The flesh of the fruit is yellow to reddish-brown. The texture can vary from smooth to grainy and resembles a pear in flavor. Most varieties have between three and 12 brown to black seeds within the fruit.
The sapodilla tree is tall and upright in form and relatively slow growing. In its native environment, it can reach up to 100 feet, although heights of 30 to 40 feet are more common. When young, the plants have a definite pyramid shape, although this changes as the tree matures, developing a more rounded or irregular shape. The tree can spread to 20 to 40 feet when fully mature. While sapodilla prefers regions that are frost free, it can tolerate temperatures down to 25 degrees F for short periods of time.
Sapodilla is a subtropical plant that probably originated in southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. The trees are now frequently found in the forests of Central and South America, where ancient peoples cultivated them. The tree has also been introduced to the Caribbean islands, south Florida, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and India.
Sapodilla trees can grow in many different soil conditions, ranging from poor to rich. They prefer moist, but well-draining, soils. Full sun is best in areas that receive little frost, if any. Sapodilla is highly tolerant of drought and soil salinity. The tree requires little direct care, such as pruning or irrigation. Young trees often require frequent fertilization to become well-established. Propagation can be done by seed, although grafting from trees with good fruit or sap production to seedling stock is preferred.
Until recently, the sap from the tree was collected for use as a base for chewing gum. This was accomplished by slashing the bark of the tree to encourage sap to flow. The sap was collected, boiled to congeal it, then used to make gum. This practice has been largely abandoned, with chewing gum manufacturers using other, less expensive and more widely available gum bases. The fruit of the sapodilla tree is commonly found in fresh markets in tropical areas around the globe.