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Can you correctly identify this week’s mystery plant?

Mystery plant pic

Can you identify this week’s mystery plant?

(Answer: “Cherry laurel,” “Laurel cherry,” Prunus caroliniana)

Photo by LINDA LANE

“Presidents’ Day” is upon us again, and that always makes me think of George Washington. For a botanist, the old legend about young George’s chopping down a cherry tree is rather memorable. So, in honor of our first President, I present to you…a cherry tree.

All of the true cherry species belong to the genus Prunus, which is a member of the rose family. Our mystery plant is a relative of the common and widespread “black cherry,” which may be growing in your area. These two species are superficially similar, but very easy to tell apart. While black cherry is strictly a deciduous plant, our mystery plant is evergreen, its leaves 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, especially on sprouts. 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 cherry 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 was cultivated.

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. (At this time of year, the flowers are mostly still in tight bud.) 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. You will remember that this sort of fruit is classified as a “drupe”; cherries, plums, peaches, almonds…they’re all drupes. Of course, on my class field trips, I used to taste 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, in the late winter, as in now. 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 ©JohnNelson2020

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 nelson@sc.edu.