The strange, tastebud-altering properties of Miracle Fruit, Synsepalum dulcificum, have intrigued me for years. When I found a cute little plant at my favorite local nursery, I jumped on it. It went from badly overwatered to neglectfully underwatered and died before the first fruit ripened.

This fall, I found another one – with red fruits on it! At least I could be sure of experiencing its “miracle” firsthand. I resolved to read up on its growing requirements, to reduce my chances of killing this one. I’m pleased to report it’s getting bigger and producing fruit now, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned.

Small Miracle Fruit tree in white walled corner Miracle fruit plants are small trees, native to the tropical rain forests of West Africa. In less tropical areas, grow them in a container and bring them inside when temperatures drop below 50’F. Buying a little starter plant is the best bet, as they are reportedly tricky to propagate. Several mail order nurseries offer them; check reviews in the Garden Watchdog before ordering!

As I discovered with my first tree, Miracle Fruit requires consistently moist but well-drained soil. African rain forests get plenty of water, but the thin layer of topsoil never stays soggy for long. Heavy rainfall and decaying organic matter also lower the pH of rainforest soil. For a well-draining, slightly acidic potting mix, I lightened some peat-based Pro Mix BXTM with an equal part of perlite. I added my usual polymer moisture crystals and a shake of slow-release fertilizer. A pot just a couple inches bigger than its nursery pot gave my new tree room to grow without overwhelming its roots.

Determined to give this tree only the best care, I put it squarely in front of my sunniest window. Oops! The leaves got sunburned, red and brown. Tropical doesn’t always mean needs blazing sun. Miracle Fruit trees are accustomed to the filtered light under the canopy of taller rain forest trees. Now it’s growing nicely in a corner between two windows, getting plenty of bright but indirect light.

Very small white blooms with dark stamens, flowers cluster close to the branch at the base of a leaf. Miracle Fruit trees can produce twice a year, starting from when they’re a mere 18 inches tall. My little tree had lots of tiny buds this winter but wasn’t setting any new fruits. I added half-strength fertilizer every other time I watered to give it a gentle boost. I started seeing teeny starry white blooms, but still no fruit. To ensure pollination, I fiddled among the blossoms with a soft brush and also rustled the branches around a little. My tree is now ripening a new crop of little oblong fruits!

Fortunately, we didn’t have to go through all that before our first Miracle Fruit Flavor Tripping Party, as our tiny tree came home with both red and green fruits on it. We wanted to share the experience, so we snipped fruits as they ripened and stored them in the refrigerator.

Dark wrinkled oblong fruit still attached to branch From our own experience, ripe fruit can dry up like a raisin (either on the branch or in the vegetable bin) and retain its magic. Fresh fruit or freeze-dried tablets can also be purchased online, if you’d rather not grow your own. An internet search turned up an array of entertaining conspiracy theories as to why Miracle Fruits are hard to come by, but most likely the market is simply too small at this point.

What’s it like? Miracle Fruit has little juice, texture, or flavor of its own. The magic is all in its effect on your tastebuds. I used to think that Miracle Fruit simply blocked sour receptors, but actually it’s the receptors for sweet that are affected. Rather than being inherently sweet, Miracle Fruit is a sweet-inducer. Your tongue has many different taste receptors. Chemicals in the foods we eat act like keys in locks, opening cellular channels that excite neurons and send messages to our brains.

How's it work? Miraculin, the not-so-scientific sounding name for the active ingredient in Miracle Fruit, binds to the sweet receptors. Nothing further happens unless acid is present. Citric and ascorbic acids in fruit, lactic acid in yogurt, even hydrochloric acid -- they all change the bound miraculin protein, activating the sweet flavor receptors. Going back to the lock and key analogy, the miraculin protein acts as a key, but the key only turns in the lock when acids are present.

With miraculin, sour or tangy food undergoes a remarkable flavor transformation. Sour taste is unaffected, so the tanginess and complexity of flavors remain. Meanwhile, acid in the food creates an accompanying sweet flavor that would make you swear your tongue has been dipped in sugar.

Miraculin only affects your taste receptors, not your brain or the rest of your body. In West Africa, it’s been used for centuries, but only a few other countries have approved Miracle Fruit for general food use. In Europe, its novel food status suggests consumer safety, but the USDA has not yet classified it as GRAS , or generally recognized as safe. So is it safe? Use your own judgment.

Close-up of red oblong fruit For our flavor tripping party, we laid out a wide variety of foods. We took little tastes of everything, and then we made a big production of eating our Miracle Fruits. Roll the chewed fruit around your mouth and across your tongue for an entire minute for an effect that lasts at least half an hour. Skepticism quickly turned into astonishment as foods were re-sampled. Ordinary foods now tasted extraordinary!

Sour foods or those with even a little tartness transformed deliciously under the influence of miracle fruit. Greek yogurt and cream cheese acquired the honeyed sweetness of a really good cream cheese frosting. Sampling bland foods like cucumber, some reported no change, while others said the flavor turned flat or “just bad - and I mean really yukky.”

Citrus was an obvious choice, and we loved the candied flavor imparted by the Miracle Fruit. My daughter said she’d eat grapefruit every single morning if it could taste like that! Oranges were sweet, like mandarins in heavy syrup, with an unmatched fresh flavor. We mixed lemon juice with water for sugar-less lemonade more intense than the fresh-squeezed county fair version.

Apples got mixed reviews. To our altered tastebuds, sweet Gala apples turned slightly bitter, while tart Zaestar apples tasted “like super sweet apple pie without cinnamon.” We concluded that the more sour the usual flavor of a food, the greater the change with miracle fruit, and the more delicious the resulting taste. Lemon water was the hands-down favorite transformed flavor.

We’re looking forward to trying miracle fruit with summer fruits, the sourer the better. Usually we hope for sweet strawberries, but not this year. We’re planning to include pomegranate seeds and super-sour crunchy rhubarb stalks on the table at our next tasting party. What will you try at your miracle fruit party?

Photos by Jill M Nicolaus. "Mouse over" images and links for additional info -- just let your cursor hover for a few seconds, and a pop-up box will appear

When researching how to grow my Miracle Fruit tree, I found two particularly useful sources:
Miracle Fruit Hut: http://www.miraclefruithut.com/growing-tips
Pepe’s Plants: http://www.pepesplants.com/how-to-grow-miracle-fruit.html

A good summary of the current knowledge about Miracle Fruit and the effects of miraculin is here: http://www.fooducation.org/2012/09/facts-about-miracle-fruit-miraculin.html