“Tip your head back,” Chad Chesley said, holding a bottle of lemon juice.
Chesley, who works as a urologist in Longview, had just provided me a miracle berry, a mild-tasting fruit that alters your taste buds temporarily. More specifically, it makes sour or tart flavors taste as sweet as candy.
We were testing the results in his kitchen, so I complied, tipping my head just far enough so Chesley could squirt a bit of the juice in my mouth without it running down my chin.
Lemonade. The juice tasted just like lemonade, maybe even better.
I didn’t pucker, make a funny face or try to chase the taste away with a glass of water. I instead popped a Sour Patch Kid in my mouth. It tasted like, well, a Sour Patch Kid, but one lacking the sour sugar coating.
Before the lemon juice, I ate the pulp from a couple slices of lemon and lime. When I was younger, I used to eat lemons on a dare, wishing I hadn’t after puckering my lips each time. This time was different. The lemon and lime slices were void of their tart flavor. In its place — nothing but sweet pulp.
The culprit behind my palate rendering sour and tart flavors as sweet is thanks to that small, red fruit called Synsepalum dulcificum — better known as the miracle berry. Chesley grows 50 miracle berry plants in his backyard greenhouse.
The plants, which originated in West Africa, have a protein called miraculin, which Chesley credits for altering one’s palate by “refining the sour taste buds on your tongue.”
“Anything sour or tart turns super sweet, so you can eat a lime, and it’s the sweetest limeade you’ve ever had,” Chesley explained, pulling several bags of the red berries from his freezer.
Chesley has an ample supply of the berries. He said his 50 plants bear fruit about five times a year, with each plant producing 30 to 50 berries per harvest.
“I give them away and have a freezer full,” Chesley said.
Yet it took time for Chesley to see the fruits of his labor. It took two and a half years before his first plant produced a berry.
Chesley purchased his first tree about a decade ago. After building his greenhouse, he started searching for “weird tropical plants,” and miracle berries fit the bill.
“Then I found a grower who had some clones in California, so I went and bought a plant, and then I imported seeds and started growing them from here,” said Chesley, who had to fill out a USDA permit before importing the seeds from Peru.
The key to cultivating a fruitful plant, he revealed, is fresh seeds.
“They’re hard to germinate. You know you buy peas and 90 percent of them are going to germinate? The miracle berries seeds, I think I imported 30 or 40, and probably 10 of those grew,” he said. “The seeds in the freezer won’t grow, so it has to be fresh to grow.”
He said he also has cloned his existing plants.
“You can take a branch, cut it off, dip it in rooting powder and then put that in soil. A couple of those trees I’ve cloned just the same way you’d clone any other plant,” he explained. “So you can either grow from seeds or clone them.”
Chesley grows his plants in a greenhouse — where he cultivates tropical and subtropical plants such as papaya, curry, dragon fruit, carob and vanilla — but he noted a greenhouse isn’t necessary for cultivating miracle berry plants.
People interested in growing their own can do so just by purchasing acidic soil, placing it by a window and making sure not to overwater it.
“Pretty simple to take care of,” Chesley said.
For the berries to work their magic, Chesley said the key is to remove the red skin of a single berry and roll the white pulp on your tongue for 5 minutes.
“It has the thin red skin on it. You take the skin off and throw it away. There will be a white pulp around the big seed that has the protein in it, so you put it in your mouth and roll it around for 5 minutes,” he explained, popping a berry into his own mouth.
“Don’t swallow the seed like my daughter did,” he added, grinning.
The effects of the berry last about 20 minutes, Chesley said, though some online reviews claim the effects last for up to an hour.
Some websites tout the berry as a diet supplement of sorts. Chesley said the miracle berry gene has been added to lettuce and tomatoes, but it “hasn’t really worked out.”
“It’s just something cool that nature does,” he said.
Chesley said he typically gives most of his miracle berries away.
“If somebody comes over that I met I say, ‘hey, try these miracle berries.’ And it freaks people out,” he said.
Popular items to try after eating a miracle berry include limes, lemons, lemon juice, tart candies, fruit, tomatoes and even vinegar.
Chesley’s only caveat: The flavor-altering magic doesn’t work for 5 percent to 10 percent of people.
So if you’re one of the few, you might not want to start with lemon juice.