Yesterday the world was flooded following the dreadful “Arctic Vortex,” so John and George tended our aging and ailing website www.floridagrasses.org. It shall rise again! And a rainy day is a fine time to contemplate the hedge out window.
Cocoplum must be the most-used native shrub in local landscaping. Why can this cooperative species tolerate the abuse of periodic hedge-pruning in the service of neighborhood beautification? Perhaps because it is largely a coastal citizen adapted to the stormy setbacks and recoveries of seaside living. The genus Chrysobalanus is a complex of close relatives interpretable debatably as three species distributed around the Caribbean and in Africa. The transatlantic hop probably results from very floaty seeds. Imagine that!—the hedge species around my house is commonplace along the Congo River. Slicing and dicing the genus into different species is complicated by a messy pattern of variation with different variants turning up side-by-side.
Landscapers fancy “red tip” Cocoplums glowing ruby red in the balmy Florida sunshine. Red in young growth is common in the plant world, the red pigments probably sun-screening tender new growth. Cocoplum is usually shrubbery but some can rise to 30 feet tall with a trunk a foot in diameter. Flip the leaf over and look closely near the base. Very closely! Cocoplum is one of numerous Florida plants to feed ants with nectaries on foliage. Sometimes a tiny drop of sweet nectar appears on the glands to get the ants all excited. You may need a magnifier. The glands are smaller than tiny, and green, just at the base on each side of the petiole attachment. This photo helps. CLICK
As I mow the detested grass I nibble any plums on the Cocoplums I pass. The sweet tastinessis is subtle at best, and most of the experience is “pit.” The fruits vary in flavor, and in coloration: black-purple, reddish, golden, or white. To my limited experience, flavor does not correlate with color. Historically in the New World and in Africa alike, the fruits are valued for eating fresh, drying, and making into preserves, even canned and marketed commercially. (There are reports of toxins in the plants.)
Being a drupe, the inner fruit layer is a hard case (endocarp) around the seed. The endocarp-seed unit is a pit or stone, as in a peach or almond. Peaches and almonds are in the Rose Family. Cocoplum is related to the Rose Family, where in times past today’s shrubs held membership. That some folks report an almond essence to the seeds, perhaps cyanide, possibly reflects the relationship to the Rose Clan. The stony case around the seed has thin elongate grooves. The grooves are preformed opening slits to let the seedling out. As the case opens, it looks like a Hibiscus capsule splitting to release its seeds.
The seed contains 20-some percent oil and burns like napalm. Both in the Americas and in Africa the seeds skewered on sticks or strung on wires make natural candles, no doubt accounting for the name “Fat Pork” applied to Cocoplums the Caribbean. It burns with a popping sound and black oily smoke. Historically enterprising harvesters shipped the seeds from Africa to England as cheap candles. Maybe now we could squeeze a little biofuel out of our hedges.
Speaking of names, the botanical name is interesting. Chrysobalanus translates in polite society as “golden acorn.” But Linnaeus was not fully fit for polite society, and the name is probably a double entendre not seemly for translation in our genteel blog. (The endocarp does look much like an acorn.)
“Icaco” is even a more-interesting name, since it seems to contain a clue about potential pre-Columbian cultural intercourse. “Icaco” reportedly comes from an indigenous name for the plant from Hispaniola, “Icaco” or “Hicaco.” Okay, good, and what really spices the sauce is the similarity of its indigenous names from other localities scattered around the Caribbean, from “Ekakes” in Curacao to names resembling “Hekako” in Mesoamerica, and in Florida, as noted by Florida botanist Dan Austin. Names don’t move around the Caribbean unless people are island hopping, and apparently dropping by the Sunshine State. Personally, I (not an original notion) expect archaeology to reveal more and more pan-Caribbean influences impacting ancient Florida, from agaves to papayas to the name “hekako.”