Ixora pavetta a rare introduced curiosity in Southeast Florida Scrub
Up and down the coast from around Hobe Sound to Miami an odd non-native small tree makes rare appearances. Ixora pavetta is a member of the Coffee Family, not the sort of Ixora we think of as nutrient-deficient hedges all over S Florida. Those are mostly hybrids of I. coccinea.
Today’s Ixora has tiny fragrant white flowers in large clusters. You might say it is an invasive exotic, but it is the best-behaved invasive exotic in town, and you don’t find this tropical oddity much in cultivation either, except maybe around Miami. So far as is known, its wild Florida occurrences are at Hobe Sound, Jupiter (Jupiter Inlet Natural Area where I took the pictures), Boynton Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami.
The species is cultivated a little in Florida, and a lot in and near its native India. Do the handful of local wild occurrences arise from each other, or from separate cultivated individuals? What’s puzzling, at least north of Broward County you just don’t have much if it in cultivation. The pea-sized fleshy fruit is naturally dispersed in India by sloth bears. We don’t have abundant sloth bears locally, but is a raccoon all that different? And of course birds probably lend a hand.
At the local wild sites there are a few scattered trees, but it obviously does not spread much or aggressively. The proper pollinators may not be around. In India fruit production reportedly varies with pollinator availability. In Florida, at least at Seacrest and Jupiter Inlet, only a tiny minority of flowers make a fruit. As an Ixora, Ixora pavetta has what’s known as an “ixoroid” pollination system. The pollen-making anthers deposit the pollen onto the immature non-receptive stigma, to be picked up there by a pollinator and transferred to the ripe stigma of a different flower.
That may require particular pollinators, perhaps with the time of day mattering, not any ol’ bee that happens along. Speculate as we will, something inhibits pollination and fruiting. That may be a “lucky break” in a naturalized exotic species.
The flower clusters attract big red serious-looking ants. They do not seem to be coming for floral nectar, but the leaf bases have flaps (stipules) covering little secretory glands called colleters, which I’ll bet are the ant bait.
Today’s plant is a member of the coffee family, which is always interesting medicinally, given that the coffee family has a way of producing bioactive compounds, such as, well, coffee. In India Ixora pavetta has an ancient history of treating a whole bunch of troubles. Here are ten examples dug up fast on Google: muscle aches, chest pains, dark urine, soft-tissue damage, eye troubles, fatigue (I like coffee for that), constipation, whooping cough, anemia, and good fortune from squares of its hard dense wood. In India that wood is favored by wood-turners.
*Careful: the name “Torchwood” is applied to at least three different shrubs. Another name for Ixora pavetta is misleadingly Jungleflame. This may seem weird, given the white flowers encountered in Florida, but the species can make red flowers in certain times and places.