To set the stage, enjoy a trip to Jonathan Dickinson State Park and cyber-visit the Gopher Apple in John’s Gigapan Image. You can zoom in and out, and move around. This shows GA’s at their correct size, 1 foot tall.
Do Gopher tortoises really eat Gopher Apples? Yes, although the tortoises do have a broader varied diet, and the “apples” have a broader varied consumership. Perhaps significantly, however, the range of the plant and the range of its armored namesake are similar. Do the “seeds” (endocarps) have to pass through a tortoise to sprout? UF Prof. Sandra Wilson and collaborators report good germination after mere extended soaking in water. Kinda disappointing in a fashion.
When you see a Gopher Apple you often see a few hundred in a mass, as in John’s Gigapan. Those are probably all one big clone, spreading by thickened subterranean stems, the perfect way to survive in the fire-prone habitats favored by the species.
What would happen if there were no fires to keep knocking the GA’s down? Recently John and I noticed a 5-foot shrub in Jonathan Dickenson Park near the RR tacks close to the site of the Gigapan, and from the distance the species seemed unfamiliar. Upon closer examination, it turned out to be a shrub-sized GA on steroids with a trunk. There’s a population there of numerous individuals of mixed sizes, from knee-high to eye-level plus.
At the time our conversation drifted to ascribing the freak size to RR herbicide spray. (The common herbicide 2,4-D is a hormone mimic and causes funny things to happen.) Another thought, perhaps proximity to the tracks saved the shrubs from burning, or perhaps not. We’re not sure. Further investigation showed us not to be alone we were not alone in our encounter with gigantism. Daniel Ward and Walter Taylor reported similar unburned oversized Gopher Apples on Merritt Island. (Castanea 64: 263-265. 1999.)
Big Gopher Apples are nice, but what would really get the camera clicking would be the matching 4-foot gopher tortoises. But seriously now, Licania is a large tropical genus with shrubs and trees, so our little fire-adapted species probably has “grow-big” genes in its DNA, suppressed but not that suppressed (according to my unsubstantiated speculation). Sort of like people have grow-a-tail genes in our DNA, suppressed, but not always.
Look at the picture of the GA fruit. Does it resemble the Cocoplum hedge outside your house? The two are closely related, and earlier taxonomists joined them as the same genus. Gopher Apples and Cocoplums are our two local reps of the large tropical family Chrysobalanaceae, which is traditionally regarded as related to the Rose Family, hints of which you can see in the pretty white Gopher Apple flowers. DNA study shows the relationship not to be so close, however.