The cocona (scientific name Solanum sessiliflorum) is a member of the Solanaceae family. The plant is a shrub that grows in tropical areas, known for its solid branches that support a number of massive leaves which are serrated and covered in hair. Cocona looks similar to other related plants like naranjilla and pseudolulo but it can easily be distinguished from them because it doesn't have spines and lacks the trademark purple color of the naranjilla. However, cocona can easily form hybrids with related plants.
Coconas are native to South America, specifically to the areas near the Andes Mountains, where it can be found in the wild and is sometimes cultivated. Its flowers have green petals and resemble an oversized potato flower. The fruit is edible and can be yellow, orange or red in color. It is harvested for consumption in eastern Peru and other areas close to the main Amazonian rainforest. In other parts of the world, cocona is sometimes grown indoors as an ornamental plant. However, dry air during the winter must be avoided at all costs, otherwise it can be affected by spider mites. Cocona is also highly vulnerable to nematodes and aphids, like other plants from its family. It can tolerate lower temperatures but frost kills or causes massive damage to the plant.
Cocona is a shrub that can reach a height of up to 2 m. It is an herbaceous plant with numerous branches, white hairy twigs and a downy stem. Leaves are very big, with a length of up to 45 and a width of 38 cm. They have an ovate shape, with an oblique base and serrated edges. Their upper side is feathery, while the underside is strongly veined. Young plants have their underside covered with rough hairs. There is a wild variety named georgicum that has spines, located on all leaves and branches. Flowers can be found on leaf axils and have a size of about 2-3 cm. They grow in groups of two and normally consist of 5 petals with a faint green or yellow color, an equal number of yellow stamens and a vivid green calyx.
Fruits develop on short peduncles and can be found either alone or in small clusters. They have a variable shape that can be round, oval or even conical, with a length between 2 and 10 cm and a round base of about 6 cm in width. It has a thin but very strong skin that is covered with a layer of hair similar to the one of peaches. When the fruit matures, the hair goes away and its skin becomes perfectly smooth with a wide range of colors from yellow or golden to orange, red or even purple. It consists of flesh with a creamy color and yellow pulp in the middle, with a jelly consistency. The fruit smells similar to a tomato when cut open. The core pulp contains many small seeds with a creamy look, which can be eaten as such. The flesh layer resembles the taste of a tomato, while the central pulp is mildly acid, similar to a lime. The cocona fruit has an intriguing taste, often described as a cross between a tomato and a citrus.
Solanum sessiliflorum is quite adaptable and its size makes it an interesting indoor ornamental plant even in cooler climates. During the warmer months it can be moved to a greenhouse or even outside. In greenhouses, it requires condition very similar to tomatoes and it can thrive. The plant enjoys warm climates and doesn't tolerate frost, just like pepino and other tropical species. However, it isn't always killed by frost. It can survive short freezing periods of up to -2.5°C but it will lose its leaves and might suffer serious damage. Cocona is normally a perennial plant with a very long life, just like its relatives.
Indian inhabitants of the Guaharibos Falls area of the Amazon rainforests were the first to be observed to cultivate cocona in 1760. However, it was later discovered that other tribes were growing the plant as well. This sparked the interest of farmers, who were interested in the fruit production and the plant's ability to form hybrids with naranjilla.
Cocona is known to have important medical properties. South American tribesmen used it to reduce high blood pressure, treat diabetes and cure headache. It was also employed as a treatment for burns and as a counter for venom and scabies.
The plant's fruit is rich in nutrients but low on sugar, which makes it ideal for diabetes patients. It is especially rich in vitamin B5 and iron but is also a source of phosphorous and calcium. It contains bioactive compounds such as riboflavin, carotene and thiamine. Like many other fruits, it has a high content of soluble fibers while being low on calories. In traditional medicine, cocona is considered good for liver and kidney diseases and able to decrease the levels of uric acid and cholesterol. Cocona juice can cure burns, snakebite and poison.
The cocona fruit has a vivid orange color and is valuable because of its large size, similar to an oversized avocado. Its strong acidic taste makes it a popular ingredient in the cuisine of the Amazonian natives.
The Indians who inhabit the South American jungles usually harvest the cocona fruit from the wild and eat it fresh after peeling it. However, it can also be included in salads or added to a variety of meat or fish dishes. It can be pickled or turned into candy and can be processed into jelly, paste or jam. With added sugar, it is an ingredient in pies and sauces. Cocona fruit can also be made into a delicious cold juice, sweetened with sugar.
The special aroma of the cocona fruit makes it popular with many people, who are attracted by the exotic taste. It is easily paired with many other foods and combines the tomato-like taste of the flesh with the acidity of the pulp. Most commonly, it can be found as juice, sauce, ice cream or other types of sweets and desserts. It is a great choice for juices in particular, since it has both a very high proportion of water (close to 90%) and a valuable mix of vitamins and minerals.
Cocona does not tolerate frost and grows best when fully exposed to sun. It requires very good drainage but can otherwise thrive in soils rich in sand, clay or even limestone. Propagation is easily done in two ways. It grows well from seeds, and every fruit has at least 800 of them, sometimes up to 2000. It also propagates readily from cuttings taken from any existing plant. Seeds should be placed in a mixture of pot soil and sand, about half an inch deep, in rows spaced about 8 inches. Around 4-5 seeds can be planted in one container in order to get one or two vigorous plants. The time of germination is variable and can take between two and 8 weeks.
The fertilizer of choice is 10-8-10 NPK and it should be applied six times per year, in doses between 1.8 and 2.5 ounces for every plant. The only exception is when the soil has a high content of phosphorous, when 10-20-10 fertilizer is the best. The first fruits appear half a year after seeding. The plant can fertilize itself but bees and other insects will be attracted by the nectar anyway, which can result in hybrids. After pollination, it takes 8 weeks for the fruit to be ready for harvest. One plant produces between 22 and 40 pounds of cocona fruits.