Fairly small tree occurs naturally in maritime forests
Saturday, January 5, 2019
For to make chireseye, tak chiryes at þe feast of Seynt Iohn þe Baptist, & do awey þe stonys …
— Hieatt, Constance B. and Sharon Butler. Curye on Inglish: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth-Century (Including the Forme of Cury). New York: for The Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press, 1985.
It’s all about cherries this week. People have been wild for sweet cherries for a very long time, as the recipe from the 1300’s suggests, and yet the sweet cherry species, Prunus avium, has been enjoyed by humans for thousands of years before that. Cherry trees sometimes make us think of George Washington, the old legend about his chopping one down. Today’s Mystery Plant is a cherry, but not the kind from the produce stand.
All of the true cherry species belong to the genus Prunus. Our mystery plant is an evergreen species (unlike sweet cherry, which is totally deciduous), and its leaves are elliptical or somewhat egg-shaped, and shiny green. The leaf margins are extremely variable, and may be smooth, or equipped with a number of usually small, jaggedy teeth. The leaf blades are a bit stiff and leathery, and if you crunch some up in your two hands and breathe in the aroma, you will probably recognize at least a slight, sweet laurel scent.
This species is usually a fairly small tree, and it occurs naturally in maritime forests along the coast, from North Carolina down to central Florida, and west to Texas. The thing is, this species is easily capable of growing well away from the coast, and it has now become naturalized in many parts of the Southeast outside its "normal" range. It is something of a weed, actually, often showing up in vacant lots and along fences, and seems to have spread from sites where it is cultivated.
In the spring, flowers are produced in short racemes, found in the axils of the leaves. The flowers each bear 5 tiny white petals, plus stamens and a pistil. The flowers are fragrant, and the trees are rather attractive, I think, while blooming. Following the blooms, green one-seeded fruits begin to develop.
As they mature, the skin ultimately turns a rather glossy black and they, too, are attractive. The seed inside the fruit eventually swells to the point that it occupies most of the interior, with just a thin layer of soft tissue between the seed (or "pit") and the skin. Of course, on my class field trips, I have indeed tasted the flesh of the fruits, much delighting the students when I make a face and then spit it all out. (The fruits taste terrible.)
On the other hand, various birds, especially robins and cedar wax-wings seem to love eating these fruits, especially late in the winter. I'm not sure if the seeds must go through a bird in order to sprout, but my backyard is covered with seedlings of this tree each spring. And, all the birds in my neighborhood that are eating these things then fly over to adorn my car with a kind of ornithological augmentation: what a mess. It’s the pits.
[Answer: “Cherry laurel," "Laurel cherry," Prunus caroliniana]
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.