Mystery plant offers delicious fruits

  • Thursday, May 8, 2014

Linda Lee/USC Herbarium The mystery plant offers tasty fruits.

Marvelous, marvelous fruits: they are delectable, and not just to humans.

Here is a small tree that is native to the Far East, but has been introduced widely in the United States, and is now naturalized commonly in many places.

It is something of a woody weed here in the South, where it is often found on roadsides, or vacant lots and river bottoms.

The trees have extremely variable leaves, which may be heart-shaped to nearly roundish or oblong, almost always with a point at the tip. Leaves of young plants and sprouts may be deeply lobed, sometimes like a mitten. The margins of the leaves are sharply toothy, and the upper surface of the blade is generally smooth, not too hairy.

(This species has a close relative, in fact nearly a dead-ringer, but its leaves are more hairy and a bit scratchy above).

The flowers are unisexual, always held together in short spikes. Each female flower within its spike ends up having its tissues fused together with a neighboring flower, and the resultant fruit is thus what we call a “multiple” fruit, and architecturally similar to what happens with a pineapple. The fruits are luscious and juicy, and at maturity may be white, pink, red, or deep purple.

This tree figures prominently into the economic history of the American South, where, in the late 17th Century, a fledgling silk industry began. Of course, silk comes from silk worms, and silk worms like to eat. They love to munch on the leaves of our Mystery Plant. Unfortunately for the silk industry, the worms are extremely finicky--and usually very hungry--and in general, rather hard to care for. The American silk industry (which, by the way, is called “sericulture”) was thus not a real challenger to the enormous economic power realized from timbering and later from the development of rice as a commercial crop. The trees, though, have remained, and continue to pop up here and there, often as a result of their popularity with their feathered acquaintances.

While you mull over the name of this tree, let me tell you that it was named, officially, by Carl Linnaeus in 1753. Linnaeus, from Sweden, was something of a genius, and truly one of the world’s greatest naturalists. He is known as the Father of Plant Taxonomy, and was responsible, in large part, for the standardization of what we call “binomial” naming.

Before his time, botanists came up with cumbersome, wordy descriptions of plants, and these cumbersome, wordy descriptions, when printed, actually ended up as the plant’s name.

What a mess! Since Linnaeus’s time, scientists have consistently stuck with this process. And, it was Linnaeus who championed the usage of herbaria, or collections of dried plant specimens, as the best way of studying plant taxonomy, instead of relying on inaccurate copies of plant illustrations that had ended up in all of the books of his time.

Answer: “White mulberry,” Morus alba

John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. Visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.

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