Mystery Plant! #709

John Nelson


By John Nelson

Photo by John Nelson.

Those of you faithful readers of this column will know that its author (me) is fond of studying the plant life in grocery stores…and of course this means those plants that are being marketed, usually as species which are edible in one way of another. In fact, I have taken classes of students to the grocery stores in order to get an idea of the diversity of plant life being offered to the public: this is what we commonly call “economic botany”. (I recall that once we went to a store whose manager allowed us to sample the fruits and things, so that was a big hit with the students. Especially that time a bit into a tiny red pepper which was basically the hottest thing I’d ever put in my mouth.)

Over the years of doing this, I have determined that the most interesting produce sections belong to the better-stocked markets, obviously, and that various ethnic markets offer the most interesting selections of all.

Always one to sample (cautiously, now) an unusual and new (for me) vegetable or fruit, I’ve become fond of checking out the ethnic grocery stores around where I live. There’s a street not so far from us which offers a surprising variety of food shops and restaurants, ranging from Caribbean and Latin American to West African, Middle Eastern, and east Asian. It’s a good place for a curious botanist such as yourself to do some browsing and maybe discover a new taste treat.

Here is a new one for me, and it came from a local Mexican tienda. These are the fruits of a tropical species with about 100 different relatives in its genus, and which belongs to the tropical family “Malpighiaceae”. Our mysterious species is native to the Caribbean islands and most of Central America. (A different species is native to south Florida.) It’s a shrub or smallish tree which grows in dry upland forests, and which is cultivated widely outside its native habitat. The plants produce flamboyant blossoms, bright orange to red, each flower with five petals, lots of them on a stalk. Because the plants are so attractive, they are frequently grown just for the flowers. Each flower will have 10 stamens, and will eventually produce a somewhat cherry-shaped fruit containing a single roughened pit. The fruit is “superior”, as we say, in that the flower parts are attached below the ovary…like a cherry.

The fruits when ripe will be bright gold or a bit orange; mine were packed in a sweet syrup. There is a thin skin, with a mealy pulp between the skin and the pit. They are enjoyed in cooked desserts and drinks, and when fermented as a source of local distilled spirits. Of course, they are also eaten raw, fresh off the tree. I understand that for most people, the raw fruits might take a bit of getting used to, as they have a peculiar smell, somewhat cheesy. Nevertheless, the fruits are packed with things that are good for your body.

[Answer: “Nance,” Byrsonima crassifolia]

John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email

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