© Denzil Green
Cashew trees thrive in tropical heat. They are evergreens that can grow quickly up to 15 metres (50 feet) tall. They have large leaves -- 10 to 20 cm (4 to 8 inches) long and 5 to 7.5 cm (2 to 3 inches) wide -- and perfumed, yellowish-pink flowers.
Strictly speaking, a cashew nut is actually a "seed."
A cashew tree will start producing nuts in its second year, though it won't reach its full potential until it is around 10 years old. By the time a tree is 20 years old, its productive life is over. Depending on what stage of life a tree is at, and how vigorous it is, a cashew tree can produce anywhere up to 50 kg (around 100 pounds) of nuts a year.
The tree blooms, and produces flowers which are pollinated by insects.
A nascent nut in a large green shell then forms on the stem where the flower was.
Immature cashew nuts (© Vinayaraj (2007) / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0)
A fruit then grows pushing the nut away from the stem, so that the nut ends up on the bottom of the fruit.
Cashew "apples" (© Abhishek Jacob (2009) / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0)
The fruit, and its nut, take two to three months to fully mature.
The fruit is called a "cashew apple." It is sweet smelling and tasting, and juicy. It can be harvested and used for many fruit products, though it must be used quickly -- it begins to ferment after 24 hours, which is why you won't see many being shipped for sale abroad. Its tender skin also makes it difficult to ship.
Cashew apples for sale at market near Sangareddy, Andhra Pradesh, India
(© Akshay Paramatmuni (2013) / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0)
The nut is more valuable than the fruit, however, so often the fruit is just discarded in pursuit of the nut. Sometimes, the fruit is allowed to just fall off the tree, and it and its nut are harvested from there.
The nut's outer shell contains "urushiol", the same allergen that is in poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac. Not surprisingly, therefore, this toxic outer shell can cause dermatitis in some people.
Cashew nuts are always processed, consequently, to remove this outer shell. The processing must be done in a certain way, because if the shell is not opened properly, the toxin will get on the nut making it unfit for selling, let alone eating.
Most companies heat process the nut to make the shell easy to remove by steaming and/or boiling the nut in oil. The actual process of removing the shell after that is manual. A worker can process about 80 kg (175 pounds) of cashew nuts a day, using a specially designed machine with blades and cutters. Cashew nuts are inedible when raw.
The fruit is very high in Vitamin C.
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