Black Sapote Plant Profile

Fruit of the black sapote
 VanLap Hoàng/flickr/CC By 2.0

Black sapote is a tropical evergreen fruit tree closely related to the persimmon (another common name is black persimmon). While it can grow up to 40 feet tall in outdoor tropical climates, it is often grown as a potted plant—on patios in warmer climates, sometimes as a houseplant in colder regions. Like most fruit trees, black sapote is something of a novelty plant when grown in pots, where fruit production is irregular.

The oblong leaves are 4 to 12 inches long, with a leathery dark-green surface. Although it is an attractive tree with dense, full foliage, black sapote is not a particularly good ornamental landscape tree—the bark is easily damaged by mowers and it does not respond well to the fertilizers used on lawns. But mature plants produce a highly unusual fruit with a pudding-like flesh, rich and smooth with chocolatey overtones.

In tropical climates where black sapote is grown in the ground, it can be planted at any time, though it is generally best to avoid the hottest months of the year. This is a fairly slow-maturing tree that takes as much as four years to produce significant quantities of fruit.

Botanical Name Diospyros nigra
Common Name Black sapote, chocolate pudding fruit, chocolate sapote
Plant Type Evergreen fruit tree
Size 30-40 feet when grown outdoors; 
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Needs Well-drained, fertile
Soil pH Slightly acidic to slightly alkaline (5.5 to 7.5)
Native Area Central America
Hardiness Zones 10-11 (USDA); usually grown as a potted houseplant
Toxicity Unripe fruit is astringent; may be poisonous to fish

How to Plant Black Sapote

Black sapote trees are normally planted from container-grown specimens sold in black nursery pots. Avoid choosing trees that are large for their containers, as these may well be root-bound.

Dig quite a large hole, at least three or four times the diameter and twice the depth of the container. Amend the soil with organic matter, then plant the specimen at the same level it was in the nursery pot, carefully backfilling around the root ball to eliminate air pockets. Immediately water the plant deeply. Staking is not mandatory, but if you do so, use soft ties to bind the tree, as the bark is easily damaged.

Black Sapote Care

Light

This tree needs full sun. Plant it well away from buildings and other trees. It's best to plant a black sapote at least 30 feet away from anything that might shade it.

As a potted indoor or patio plant, give this plant full sun whenever possible. If you have a sunny west-facing window, this will likely be enough. Seedlings require less light but should be transitioned to a full-light situation within a few weeks of sprouting.

Soil

In the landscape, black sapote will grow well in almost any well-drained soil, including sandy soil. It has a good tolerance for slightly acidic soils as well as alkaline soils. In locations with high water tables (much of low-land Florida, for example), this tree is often grown in raised mounds.

When growing black sapote as a potted plant, any good, fast-draining potting soil will do.

Water

In the landscape, this tree needs to be watered once or twice a week for the first two months after planting, then will require watering only during dry spells. Mature trees (more than four years old) generally will not require any supplemental watering at all, except during extended periods of drought.

Potted trees will usually require twice-a-week watering.

Temperature and Humidity

A black sapote tree prefers very warm temperatures and relatively high humidity, consistent with its native environment in tropical Central America. The tree may perish at temperatures lower than 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fertilizer

Compared to other fruit trees, this species has a relatively low feeding needs. For the first year, a balanced granular fertilizer blended into the soil every eight weeks will be helpful. For mature trees, feeding in a similar fashion twice a year is usually sufficient if you are growing for fruit. If fruiting is not important, no feeding at all is necessary for a mature tree. Withholding fertilizer can be helpful for keeping a potted tree at a manageable size.

Is Black Sapote Toxic?

Unripened black sapote can be quite bitter and astringent, and may cause a slight burning, stinging sensation in the mouth—an effect that vanishes when the fruit is fully ripened. It is said that concoctions made from the unripened fruit are used as a fish poison in the Philippines, but black sapote does not register on any official lists of toxic plants.

Black Sapote Varieties

There are several varieties of black sapote, though your choice may be limited to whatever is stocked at your local garden center. Carefully examine the growth habits and mature size of the type you choose; those best suited for container growing may not be the best for fruit production.

  • 'Merida' produces very sweet fruit, 2 1/2 to 4 inches in diameter from mid-November to January. This is a very popular variety, and it may be the only one stocked at some garden centers.
  • 'Mossman' has large fruit with few seeds.
  • 'Bernicker' is a prolific producer; fruits have few seeds.
  • 'Cocktail' is known for having fruit with excellent flavor.
  • 'Maher' has large fruit of good quality.
  • 'Superb' has small fruits that are nearly seedless.

Pruning

In the first two years, it is important to do a considerable amount of pruning to shape a black sapote into the shape you want. Once mature, the pruning practice becomes less demanding—you may not need to prune at all, in fact, if you are not growing the tree for fruit.

If you are growing a black sapote for the fruit, keeping the canopy fairly open by removing some of the upper branches will improve sun exposure and fruit production in the lower branches.

Potted black sapote trees should be kept pruned to a height suitable for the location where you are growing it.

Harvest

It can take as long as five years before a black sapote tree is mature enough to produce plentiful fruit. The fruits are ready to harvest when the skins have turned from shiny green to dull, muddy green. After harvesting, allow the fruit to sit for 3 to 14 days until it softens to a good quality for eating. After this, the fruits can be refrigerated for several more days, but they will not keep for more than about one week.

The soft pulp is often eaten fresh, or it can be added to drinks, ice cream, cakes, or milk-shakes. The fruit is high in vitamin C and contains a good amount of calcium and phosphorus.

Growing Black Sapote in Pots

If growing in a container, give a black sapote plant a relatively large pot filled with a good-draining standard potting mix. Young plants will grow slowly at first, which is a benefit for indoor gardeners. You might not have to repot annually, but be careful not to let them get root-bound, as this will affect future growth.

After several years, a healthy black sapote will begin to grow more quickly, so you'll likely have to put into a much bigger pot and find a permanent home for it. Plants don't typically start fruiting for several years, so unless you have a conservatory with a high roof, it's unlikely you'll get fruit on an indoor tree.

Propagation

Although not common, you can sometimes propagate black sapote from seeds saved from a fruit. It's worth noting that some cultivars have no seeds, and others do not have viable seeds. To sprout a seed, clean and dry the seed, then plant it within about a month. The seed should sprout within a few weeks. Seedlings are not especially fast-growing, so be patient.

Common Pests and Diseases

Black sapotes are fairly trouble-free trees but they may be vulnerable to pests that include aphids, mealy bugs, scale, and whitefly. If possible, identify the infestation as early as possible and treat with the least toxic option that is effective.