Thursday, October 24, 2013
When it rains it pours.
Among the plant identification requests we got recently here in the Herbarium, there were three separate questions about this very odd plant. I can’t quite figure out if it is suddenly being noticed now, for some reason, or if it really is a recent introduction, establishing itself quickly. I’m inclined to go with the first idea.
This plant is placed by botanists in what we call the “mulberry” family (or Moraceae), which, sure enough, contains the familiar mulberries (species of the genus Morus). The mulberry family is a large group, containing many thousands of additional species, most of which are woody (tree or shrubs) and found in the tropics. There are some important tropical tree members yielding timber, and of course, everyone knows of figs (the genus Ficus, with nearly 1,000 different species!). Those of you who are fans of “Mutiny on the Bounty” will remember the poor little breadfruit plants that got tossed overboard: breadfruit is another tropical species (Arctocarpus altilis…neither a fig nor a mulberry) --with edible fruits-- in the mulberry family.
But our Mystery plant is neither mulberry, fig, nor breadfruit. This is a pretty darn strange plant for our area, introduced from eastern Asia. It is potentially a tree, although most often it is seen as a shrub. Large individuals can attain considerable size. It has hard, tough wood, and its roots are rather yellowish. Of particular interest will be the very stout thorns that are produced on some branches: they can be dangerous. The leaves are handsome, dark green and glossy. The plants are either male or female...that is, bearing either staminate or pistillate flowers...not both. (The term, of course, for such a species is “dioecious”.) Whether male or female, the flowers are small and inconspicuous, held in little roundish balls in the spring. In the fall, the female flowers’ ovaries swell into a fleshy mass, which takes on a sort of strawberry appearance, eventually turning red or orange. When the fruit gets ripe and mushy, it’s ready to eat. (I’ve never tried it.)
The leaves, thorns, and fruits that are produced by our mysterious plant might make you think of another mulberry-ish relative, the reasonably common “Osage-orange” (which is placed in yet another genus, Maclura). Osage-orange, however, is normally a smaller plant, with smaller leaves, and it produces a large, green, globose fruit, that looks sort of like a brain. As long as you have the fruits of both species, so characteristic of each, you won’t have any trouble telling the two apart. (Without the fruits, though, you might need to enlist the aid of your friendly local botanist.)
Our Mystery Plant has been valued as a hedge plant, and because of its dense growth and the formidable thorns, it makes a very fine “living fence”. But before you go out and try to start planting some of it, be aware that it SPREADS easily, forming sprouts all over the place. Getting rid of this thing, once it is out of control, can be difficult. And then there are those thorns. It might be best to stick with something else for landscaping. Something that affords a better tree-house
Answer: “Strawberry tree,” Cudrania tricuspidata]
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.