MYSTERY PLANT: Mystery plant known for flowers, edible fruit

  • Posted: Saturday, December 1, 2012 11:55 p.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, December 2, 2012 11:22 a.m.
Photo by John Nelson
This plant, a member of the myrtle family, is better known in the South for its flowers than for its edible fruits.
Photo by John Nelson This plant, a member of the myrtle family, is better known in the South for its flowers than for its edible fruits.

Nobody will ever accuse me of having a green thumb, and I can’t tell you how to grow plants. But I can name them for you; that’s what taxonomists do.

So as a little reminder: if you have a plant that needs to be identified, we can probably help, here at the Herbarium – for free.

Just send us a specimen, fresh in a little plastic bag usually works just fine; send us an image electronically; or bring it by, if it’s convenient.

Every now and then someone will bring us a plant that stumps us for a while, but eventually, we’ll figure it out. I know I’m setting myself up something of a challenge here!

Here is an odd plant that gets sent to us every now and then. It was growing as a planted shrub at a nearby elementary school. I’ve seen it here and there in town, but it strikes me as a plant that may not be as popular as it once was.

This plant is a member of the true “myrtle” family, whose botanical name is Myrtaceae, a large group of species that is native mostly to Australia and South America. Eucalyptus is also a member of this family.

Our Mystery Plant grows wild in portions of Brazil and Paraguay. It grows to small tree size, featuring attractive, opposite leaves: dark green above and nearly white (and somewhat felt-like) below.

Although the fruits in the photograph are rather impressive, most people here in the Southeast are more familiar with its flowers. Well, the flowers are gone by late summer, but let me tell you: they are really beautiful.

There are four little green sepals, below the four large, somewhat leathery petals. The petals are white on the outside, and a bright purplish-red on the inside forming a two-toned effect.

It turns out that the petals are edible, and on a big night out, they might end up adorning your dinner at a fancy restaurant.

The flower features a powder-puff of plenty of stamens, too, all of them bright red and showy.

But then there are these fruits. Each one is about the size of a big kumquat, or maybe a super-huge olive.

The end of the fruit is crowned with the old sepals. When ripe, the fruit will be soft, with a pale pulp inside including a number of seeds.

Whenever I get the opportunity, I’ll give these things a taste, and they are delicious! The pulp has a kind of pineapply taste, and to me, there is a sort of chewing gum/mint aftertaste.

This plant makes a good hedge and provides beautiful flowers and fruits, thus it ought to make a good garden plant.

There are a number of horticultural varieties of it.

It is capable of withstanding the winters from eastern Virginia down through basically all of Florida and most of the South, probably appreciating a bit of protection toward the north. But then, I’m no gardener!

John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium in the Department of Biological Sciences at USC. As a public service, the herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call (803) 777-8196.

[Answer: “Feijoa”, “Pineapple guava,” Acca sellowiana]

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