Backyard Hedges, Congo Riverfront Landscaping, and Burnin’ Fat Pork

11 Jan

Coco Plum

Chrysobalanus icaco


Yesterday the world was flooded following the dreadful “Arctic Vortex,” so John and George tended our aging and ailing website  It shall rise again!  And a rainy day is a fine time to contemplate the hedge out window.

Cocoplum flowers. The shrubs have some on them now (Jan. 11). Photo by JB.

Cocoplum flowers. The shrubs have some on them now (Jan. 11). Photo by JB.

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.

The plums (not taken this week) (JB)

The plums (not taken this week) (JB)

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 aging case around the seed is opening along preformed slits.

The aging case around the seed is opening along preformed slits.

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.

Facilitated by slits in the endocarp, the seedling can emerge.

Facilitated by slits in the endocarp, the seedling can emerge.

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.”

Fat pork lights up the night. Cultures on both sides of the Atlantic had the same idea.

Fat pork lights up the night. Cultures on both sides of the Atlantic had the same bright idea.


Posted by on January 11, 2014 in Coco Plum


Tags: , ,

14 responses to “Backyard Hedges, Congo Riverfront Landscaping, and Burnin’ Fat Pork

  1. Mary Hart

    January 18, 2014 at 5:38 am

    I love some of Linnaes’ down to earth renderings, e.g. his version of the fungus Stinkhorn (in English!)

  2. George Rogers

    January 18, 2014 at 7:12 am

    Hi Mary, OK, now I must look that up, but I’ll be blushing. Every now and then I go out the front door, and smell the foul odor of something in the old mulch. Well, lookee there, a stinkhorn. Always in a rush, never with camera in hand. Linnaeus would be the perfect example to prove that stuffy ol’ 18th Century wig-wearing academics weren’t necessarily all so stuffy.

  3. Michael Archetti

    January 23, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Well you were right! Can’t believe I didn’t know I had such a great potential biofuel growing like a weed all over my property. Great blog, I can already tell I’ll be spending quite a bit of time on here!

    • George Rogers

      January 23, 2014 at 10:02 pm

      Michael! All right! Nice to see you, and you know the deal. Try burning the seed—it really cooks.

  4. Jennifer Foglia

    January 25, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    I am always interested in plants and what one can consume and can be used for what. I was very interested in the cocoplum and loved that we ran across a few on site! It was sweet and dry and left a bitter taste similar to the inside skin of a banana. The fact that they can be used for fire is interesting! I also read about the toxicity and was curious as to the percentage and what kind of toxin was found? Either way, this site is amazing and a fantastic resource for learning the native plants! I was also impressed with the endangered PawPaw we found….is it really exclusive to Palm Beach County? Interesting!

    • George Rogers

      January 27, 2014 at 8:54 am

      Dear Jungle Diva, Nice to see you on the site. I do not have data on the toxicity—merely have seen passing mention of it, not even sure if it is entirely limited to the seed. (I do eat the fruits often.) What interested me about the cyanide, beyond warning!, is that the taxonomic placement of the Cocoplum/Gopher Apple family has been controversial for years, and has always sort of hovered around (or within) the Rose Family, known for cyanide in the pits. The 4-petal pawpaw is, as far as I know, limited to PB and Martin counties. I think if you Google it you will find some interesting reading on a remarkable rare (and pretty) plant. Ties in withthe fact that the lion’s share of rare, endangered, and narrowly distrubuted FL plants are scrub species. You just got a little taste of that fun fact.

  5. Keith Rossin

    January 29, 2014 at 10:50 pm

    I love how the Cocoplum can be used as a hedge and how it seems to be almost pest free everywhere i see it. It can take full sun and flowers year round with peak season in winter and spring. It has a low salt tolerance and loves a nice moist well drained soil. The germination period takes several months and is more commonly grown from hard wood cuttings. I love the Cocoplum makes a great hedge that is great plant for me to plant under my dying ficus hedge.

    • George Rogers

      January 30, 2014 at 9:22 am

      Good point about replacement for Ficus benjamina hedges. My house is about 15 years old and the original Cocoplum hedge still looks good.

      • Suellen Granberry-Hager

        January 30, 2014 at 10:19 am

        A few years ago, my HOA decided we needed hedges to hide our different backyard fences. So they planted a short run of Cocoplum near the main entrance and used Ficus for the rest. You know what happened. The Ficus succumbed to white fly this year, was removed, and was replaced with some type of shrub I have never seen before (and some of the new shrubs are already dying–probably an exotic). The Cocoplum are doing fine. You would think they would have paid attention to the healthy Cocoplum and would have just used a proven plant. As far as growing conditions, I have read that there is a green, coastal variety that is more salt-tolerant but less cold-tolerant than the red-tipped variety commonly seen in landscaping where I live (Boca). Cocoplum also seems to tolerate both dry soil and “wet feet” even if it prefers moist soil. All in all, a very easy-going, agreeable plant.

      • George Rogers

        January 30, 2014 at 10:58 am

        Hi Sueellen, Well, let’s see. A couple issues here. First the easy one. Sweet and delicious might be in hte mouth of the beholder. Definitely ripe and plump matters. I find cocoplum fruits to vary, but the best to be sweet, though kinda boring and 90% “stone.” I’d rather go back blackberries. On the Rose Family, the similarities are evident, perhaps right down to that cyanide, although Cocoplum, Gopher-Apple and thier relatives are peripheral enough to be exclused from the actual Rosaceae within my reference-book experience in my generation. I think formal placement in hte Rosaceae dates mostly to an earlier generation. I was brought up on the Chrysobalanaceae as a distinct family, and not just two species—it is merely that only two species are represented locally. According to a reference book at my elbow the Chrysobalanaceae include 17 genera with 430 species. To be honest, I’m not sure what more-recent DNA study has to say on all this. My guess is the DNA word is likely to be, “Chrysobalanceae are a family in thier own right related to the Rosaceae.”

      • George Rogers

        January 30, 2014 at 11:03 am

        Easy-going and agreeable, sorta like you and me. And being agreeable, I agree with all you said. Within the species overall there is huge variability, so much as to blur the lines in defining separate species to begin with. If I had to guess—I don’t have to but will anyhow—I’d guess the variant-to-varient genetic differences are slight.

  6. Suellen Granberry-Hager

    January 30, 2014 at 9:51 am

    I wish my HOA would use more Cocoplum instead of non-natives. I have always liked them plus I can actually identify them. When we found the fruits during the field trip, I thought I was finally going to experience a new, delicious food. I had tried a Cocoplum a long time ago and didn’t like it, but I thought maybe I had picked an unripe one. This time I picked a dark fruit, certainly a ripe one. But I found it dry, not very sweet, and felt as if it left my mouth parched. So when you write about “sweet tastiness”, I still don’t know what you are talking about. On another note, I didn’t know that it had been in the plant family Rosaceae. Now Cocoplum and gopher apple have their own special family, Chrysobalanus. It seems like botanists try to make some awfully fine distinctions. I would expect a plant family to be a fairly broad group of plants, not just two species. In any case, I learned some new information about Cocoplum from this post and have an increased appreciation for this plant.

  7. Mike Nalywajko

    February 4, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    I think I’d be reluctant to eat the Cocoplum just because I have other choices other than the wild. It is however, nice to know if I was in dire need I could nibble on a fruit that won’t kill me and what seems to have a nice taste. Very helpful tool for a Florida native to survive in an apocalypse.

  8. George Rogers

    February 4, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    In the event of apocalypse I plan to live on fried walking catfish


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