How many beetle-pollinated flowers do you know? Among a few, Pond Apple and Sweetbay Magnolia, both in flower now.
What I really like about Pond Apple lives primarily in my imagination and in old photos, especially ones taken a century ago by botanist John Kunkel Small. Back in the day, as they say on Pawn Stars, Pond Apple was debatably “the” broadleaf tree of the Everglades Area, especially the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee where it formed a Pond Apple forest, also an arboreal force to reckon with bordering Biscayne Bay. Back then and there the PA’s became jungle trees to maybe 60′ tall, festooned with epiphytes and birds, and complete with buttress roots. Today we encounter the trees mostly as modest-sized individuals in wet habitats, or in cultivated landscapes.
The primitive flowers have six thick fleshy petals, vanilla-yellow-white with reddish markings at the base. There’s a huge number of stamens and a hundred separate carpels (female units), each with just one seed. The female pollen-receiving stigmas become sticky and receptive before the flower enters its male phase. The carpels fuse later into the “apple.”
The floral visitors are varied species of beetles drawn by the scent. The flower tends to form a chamber that shelters the beetles and keeps them happy munching the succulent petals and perhaps mating during the flower’s passage from the female phase through pollen release. The strongest fragrance emerges in the evening, which is also the time the pollen comes free to dust the critters. The flower gets pollinated by providing a beetle rumpus room.
Most flowers serve nectar as a reward for insect visitors. But Pond Apple provides a pound of petal-flesh as the price to pay for reproduction. (Similar to paying college tuition for human pondapples.) If you think beetle pollination is weird, other Annona species rely on thrips, cockroaches, and probably sometimes flies to do the job.
Pond Apples range from Florida to South America, and to Africa. Is the tree actually native in Africa? I don’t know, probably not. The tree has become an invasive exotic nuisance in additional tropical regions such as Southeast Asia and especially in Australia, where it represents our revenge for the Melaleuca. (And its cousin the Bottlebrush getting pesky.)
Pond Apple is in the same family as Pawpaws, which have similar flowers. I ate a pawpaw once maybe a trifle unripe. It knocked me out cold and I woke up vomitoria. Closer kin is in the same genus are much-better-tasting fruits: Atemoyas, Cherimoyas, Custard-Apples, Soursops, and Sweetsops. Pond Apple serves as a locally adapted grafting rootstock for some of these, and has been hybridized with some of the tasty species. Pond Apple fruits are yucky to humans, but raccoons savor the flavor. Raccoon scat sometimes looks like PA seed conglomerate. Pigs like them too, a fact well known to land managers where Pond Apple is an invasive pest. So do iguanas and some monkeys.
The trees produce bioactive principles and have too many historical medicinal uses to start listing. Most interestingly, modern research has shown anti-cancer properties from the seeds.
Any good in the landscape? Sure. The PBSC Campus has several very purty specimens, and there’s a good-looking individual in my yard. Although wet places are the natural home, the species fares well under normal residential conditions, even unwatered or only lightly assisted after establishment. Sun or reasonable shade are okay. The upside is general prettiness, fast growth, and curious flowers. The downsides are fast growth, low branching, unwieldy watersprouts, messy fruits, reportedly toxic seeds, and seasonal leafdrop. The seeds are easy to sprout, and yes, I’ve tried them plucked out of raccoon poop—works fine but really no need to go stalk a racoon.