Search results for ‘wild coffee’

Wild Coffee and Friends—Tropical Species Coping in Florida

Psychotria nervosa

(Psycho refers to a person’s health and spirit, reflecting medicinal perceptions for some members of the genus. Nervosa refers to the sunken curved leaf veins.)

Rubiaceae, The Coffee Family


Wild Coffee is an abundant native shrub popular in landscaping. So pretty!   To dispose quickly of an old question, no, it is not coffee that is wild.   The connection of Wild Coffee to Dunkin’ Donuts is merely a superficial resemblance to a true coffee plant and membership among several thousand other species in the vast Coffee Family, along with Ixora, Pentas, Mexican “Clover,” Snowberry, Firebush, and many additional familiar plants.    The genus Psychotria itself has over 1500 species,  and includes a prime ingredient in hallucinogenic ayahuasca.   This has nothing to do with our Florida shrub which gives no high, is not edible, and can reasonably be presumed to be toxic.  Wild Coffee is a terrific example of a mechanism to promote cross pollination called heterostyly described several years ago in this blog.  CLICK

After a hiatus of some 8 years, here  now is a different oddity of Wild Coffee, one repeated among the Rubiaceae.    A little context will help:

Stipules  are outgrowths in some plants where the leaves join the stem.

The Coffee Family has a peculiar sort of stipules, called interpetiolar stipules, which are flaps connecting the bases of the paired leaves.  Each leaf pair has on both sides of the stem a pointed or rounded (or fringed) stipule rising up and pressed against the stem.


At the tip of the stem two stipules cover the growing tip.  Think of two hands clasped in prayer with an egg (the growing tip) between them.

stipules opened with gradient

Now the interesting part.   On the base of the inner face of each stipule is a row of finger-shaped organs called colleters (CALL-eh-ters).   You can see older brown or black colleters between leaf bases along the stem where aging stipules have dropped off.

Psychotria old stipule

Old stipule falling off. Colleters from its inter face visible as brown hairs between the leaf bases.

In the stem tip, by contrast, the colleters are fresh, white, and secreting a sticky fluid the color and consistency of Elmer’s Glue which fills the chamber between the stipules.

Psychotria white colleters

Fresh colleters at stem tip during secretory phase.

Psychotria cut tip

Wild Coffee stem tip sliced open.  Note the white fluid mixed with the immature leaves.

Botanists have speculated on the function of the fluid. Given that it surrounds the tender growing tip, the standard interpretation is it protects the tip.  Okay, but personally I think that’s not the whole truth.   As the stipules part and young leaves come forth the young leaf blades are wrinkled and sticky with the white fluid.   Seems to me that the crinkling delays direct sun or wind exposure on the emerging leaves, and that the persistent fluid may add protection from drying until the leaves mature a bit.

Time to broaden the perspective.  Wild Coffee is a tropical species with a northern extension, growing from  hot South America to frosty Duval County (Jacksonville area).   Interesting that a tropical species with a toe into the nasty “north” has a well protected growing tip.  Plants that evolved in cold climates generally have bud tips encased safely under tiny bud scales to get through the winter.    A tropical plant penetrating into harsher climates has to have “its own” protection.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the plant developed the fluid-filled stipules in response to its high-latitude expansion.   Fact is, many tropical plants have various devices to protect their tips from sun, drying, insects, wind, infections, and more.   Perhaps some of those protective mechanisms help certain tropicals expand into climates harsher than where they originated.  Like cool counties in Florida.    Tropical plants extended into Florida face tough conditions beyond cold.   Without a statistical study, I think it safe to say that most of our tropical species live near the warmer yet windier and saltier coasts.   And in addition to chilly temperatures we have plenty of blazing heat, dry times, fungi, bugs, wind, and tough livin’.

Let’s look at some additional tropical species with northern limits in Florida and see about their bud protection:

Strangler Fig, Ficus aurea, grows from Central America to Volusia County (Daytona).  Its growing tip hides under a thick nose cone formed by the stipule on the topmost leaf.

Ficus bud

Strangler fig nose cone (stipule) at stem top covering bud.

Red Mangrove, Rhizophora mangle, growing all around the tropical world and extending north to the Florida Panhandle (and rarely farther), likewise has a giant slime-filled nose cone over its bud.

Seagrape, Coccoloba uvifera, is a third species with a bud tip nose cone.   It reaches from South America to Flagler County (a little south of St. Augustine). (For those familiar with botanical terminology, the cone is the ocrea.) The cone is filled with a clear gel that might add protection in the bud phase or perhaps by “varnishing” the baby leaf as it grows forth.

Seagrape bud

Sea Grape nose cone over tip bud, sliced to reveal gel.   Object rising on the right is a leaf base.

Pond Apple, Annona glabra, extending north to Brevard County from South America, has its tender tip hidden beneath the base of the topmost leaf until new growth pushes off the protective older leaf.

Annona bud

Pond Apple. Leaf stalk (green) completely covers stem growing tip.

We could go on, but that will get boring, especially because the point here is that this is something fun to explore, not to list.


Posted by on December 20, 2019 in Uncategorized, Wild Coffee Stem Tip


Wild Coffee FAQ: Can You Make Coffee with Wild Coffee? (No)

Wild Coffee

Psychotria nervosa


Answer:  I’d like to get my mitts on the numbskull who made up the English names for the plants of the world.    The only connection between the Wild Coffees and Starbucks is joint membership in the Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae, along with 12,999 other close relatives.  There is a little visual similarity between a Wild Coffee and Coffea arabica, but chalk that up to broad family resemblance.  The genus of Wild Coffees, Psychotria, with some 2000 species, is one of the largest genera of woody plants.

Wild Coffee (by JB)

Would you make a cup of  “coffee” from Psychotria?  No, unless maybe you are a Shaman, and few Shamans read WordPress blogs.  The traditional uses of Psychotria include ayahuasca.  Ayahuasca  is a variable mind-altering Amazonian ceremonial concoction where the main psychoactive ingredient comes from the Banisteriopsis Vine in the Malpighiaceae (represented in south Florida by weedy Hiptage, garden flowers, and native Locust-Berry (Byrsonima lucida—another day another blog).

Psychotria adds kick to the ayahuasca with a drug known as dimethyltriptamine (DMT).  So, then again, maybe Starbucks should take a second look.  Psych-otria and psych-adelic come from the same Greek word psyche for mind and soul.  Psychotria extracts serve also in arrow poisons as well as fish and vermin-killers.  So please don’t make “wild” coffee unless you are a licensed shaman.

Psychotria punctata (by GR)

Two thousand species worldwide, four in Florida, three native.  The non-native species, Psychotria punctata from southern Africa is cultivated a bit in southernmost Florida and apparently escaped a little. Its claim to fame is foliage punctuated with translucent bacterial nodules (see the photo).   But this is a native plants blog, so back on-task.  Our three natives are:

1.   Bahama-Coffee is Psychotria ligustrifolia (P. bahamensis) on limestone in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, in the Bahamas, and on other Caribbean islands.  It differs from P. sulzneri by having glossy (vs. dull) leaves, and differs from P. nervosa by having smaller more compact form and smaller leaves with less-impressed veins.  The compactness, overall good looks, and shade-tolerance give Bahama Coffee a role in native plant landscaping.  A tough and beautiful planting has graced the Palm Beach State College campus for many years in serious shade and with little to no irrigation.

2.  Dull Leaf Coffee, aka Sulzner’s Dull Coffee (or other variations on similar names), P. sulzneri , is a pretty  shrub with flat-toned leaves having  a velvety sheen. (More on this species at (    It is a hammock dweller from southern peninsular Florida to Costa Rica.

3. The most-cultivated Wild Coffee is Psychotria nervosa.  The “nervosa” does not refer to a state of mind, but rather more mundanely to the leaf veins (nerves) which are deeply grooved.  This species (and Bahama Coffee) have domatia beneath the leaves.  Psychotria nervosa differs from the other two by having tiny calyx teeth (sepals).  It ranges naturally from Jacksonville to South America.

Wild Coffees are prime examples of an odd biological phenomenon, heterostyly (HET-er-oh-style-ee), that is, having styles of different lengths.  Flower vocabulary refresher:  the style is the elongated part of the female unit at the flower center.  It is tipped by the pollen-receptive stigma, and its base is the ovary where seeds develop.  This is important, so remember that the stigma is the pollen-receptive tippy top of the style.   Stamens make pollen at their own tips.

Many Rubiaceae are heterostylous (het-er-oh-STYLE-us), including such Florida native “coffees” as Mitchella, Morinda, Guettarda, and others.  (To lllustrate, I’m going to use Guettarda (Velvetseed) for the convenient reason I have good pictures.   Psychotria is the same for present purposes. )

Heterostyly (using Velvetseed as a similar example)  Image credit in text.

Heterostyly is an adaptation to force flowers to cross-pollinate.  In heterostylous species there are two breeding strains, and each is forced to cross exclusively with the other strain.  Here is how it works.

In one strain, the flowers have long styles (with those pollen-receiving stigmas at the tips) and short pollen-making stamens.  These long-styled flowers are called “pin” flowers.  Think of the long style as a pin.

The other strain has the reverse:  short styles and long stamens .  (“Thrum” flowers.  Thrum sounds like Tom Thumb and he was short.)

Thrum. five stamens protruding, andshort  style hidden.

Psychotria nervosa pin flower.  Style is protruding, and stamens are hidden in the flower.

Think of the pollinating bee as a dipstick probed into a flower with the bee’s nose going in deep and the bee’s knees remaining out near the entrance to the flower.  (This is oversimplified using nose and knees to make a schematic point. The actual touchpoints vary among species.)

In a pin flower the bee’s nose touches the short stamens while the bee’s knees touch the pollen-receptive stigma on the tip of that long style.  Flip-flopped, in a thrum flower, the bee’s nose touches the short stigma and the bee’s knees touch the long stamens.

So then, when the bee visits a pin flower, the short stamens powder its nose with pollen.  If it flies to another pin flower the pollen-dusty nose is not aligned for pollen-drop-off.  For this bee to drop off its pollen, it must switch to a thrum flower where the nose can pollen-dust the short stigma.  In Psychotria you can distinguish pin and thrum flowers with a hand lens.  (You can tell the styles from the stamens because each flower has one style but five stamens.)

[Drawings by Karen Stoutsenberger, from Rogers, G. K. The Genera of Rubiaceae in the S.E. U.S. Harvard Papers in Bot. 10: 42. 2005.]

Wild coffee (by JB)


Posted by on April 26, 2012 in Wild Coffee


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Coffee, Tea, or Gallberry?


Ilex glabra


John’s been inventorying the Mariposa Cane Slough Preserve in Pt. St. Lucie, for which he produced an engaging slide show with great music.  To keep the ball rolling, John and George sniffed around the preserve yesterday, enjoying nature’s oasis.    CLICK

One end of Mariposa suffered a fire not so long ago, and the plant community there is different from the rest.   There is a “lawn” of Gallberry (Ilex glabra).  Gallberry is an example of our feeling that much of the fun of botany comes from getting to know the everyday plants.  Often that’s especially fun because we see the everyday plants, well, every day.  If you have ever tasted the black pea-sized fruits you know why it is called “gall” berry.  They are bitter, although in sort of an interesting way.  Birds and wildlife don’t all find them too bitter.  Maybe the intense flavor discourages the “wrong” fruit-eaters.

Gallberries as they looked yesterday (by JB)

There’s a lot of weird stuff about Gallberry, beginning with the fact that it is a Holly.  If this is not clear at first glance, the flowers are Holly-ish, and leaves look like those of small Asian Hollies used in landscaping.  To steal a 1974 quote from horticulturists Jack Alexander and Michael Dirr, “If Gallberry came from Japan, people would rave about it.”  Of course, the U.S. was especially fascinated with Japan in the 70’s.  Fact is, there are several named horticultural cultivars of this species, more valued up north than in Florida.  Up north?

How many species do you know with a distribution from Florida all the way to Nova Scotia (and westward to Missouri)?  The breadth of the distribution underscores the environmental breadth of Gallberry: hot, cold, sunny, shady, acid, slightly alkaline, clay, sand, or salty.  The species prefers moist  sites, although there is drought tolerance.  The diverse Florida habitats include low pine woods, especially after fire.

Male flowers (not seen this week) (file photo by JB)

The most interesting features of Gallberry have to do with fire.  Here is a hot quiz question.

What do mushrooms, many grasses, icebergs, Gallberries, and spy syndicates have in common? Answer:  Most of the action is hidden below the surface.

Gallberry rhizomes and roots form a massive widespread subterranean network.  The rhizomes can grow to multiple inches in diameter and can run several feet underground connecting bush-with-bush-with-bush like stations along a railroad line.  This helps explain why Gallberry can form a monospecific even-aged “lawn” of thousands of individuals.  As with the Hydra of mythology, cut off one head and is sprouts more.

Cut off one head and you get two more.

Who would cut off the head?   Fire mostly.  Easy to envision here in flammable Florida, although it is fun to wonder if fire is the only leveling force to mow down the Ilex from here to Nova Scotia (or wherever the species evolved originally—see below).  Maybe grazing by herbivores, or extreme cold, or other harsh forces of nature have been factors in the equation too.

Have you ever noticed how a patch of Gallberry can be nearly or entirely berry-forming or not?  As a Holly, Gallberry is dioecious, that is, with separate male (pollen-producing) or female (fruiting) plants.  A big patch, all growing from the same rhizome network can be one big individual genetically speaking, just like a mushroom “fairy ring.”  Such a patch could be all male or all female, although more than one rhizome-individual might establish in one patch, especially given the prolific fruit production and assistance by berry-eating birds and mammals.   If the patches were too unisexual and too separate there’d be no cross-pollination.

This photo tells a story. The blackened stem rising in the upper right is a burn fatality. Hydra-style, at its base are rising two new replacement shoots. A pink new rhizome is extending to the lower right.

While on the theme of Hollies, did you know that Hollies are among the few plant groups with drinkable caffeine?  Hollies serve as teas in scattered regions, including the “Black Drink” consumed by Native Americans in the Southeastern U.S. derived from Dahoon Holly and from Yaupon Holly, and the Yerba Mate sipped at South American tea parties.  What about Gallberry?  Some folks call it “Appalachian Tea,” although its caffeine levels range from zip to bitsy.

One final odd tidbit.  Multiple species of Ilex (Hollies) are native in the U.S.  And you might naturally expect species found together to be most closely related to each other, which is often so but not here.  DNA study shows Gallberry a member of a species cluster otherwise limited to Eurasia and Africa.

Did a migrating bird bring it?   Or with its northern predilection, did the distribution once sprawl from Asia, across a once-dry Bering Strait leading to sunny Florida?   There are many florisitc links between eastern Asia and the eastern U.S.  In any case, the 1974 comment invoking Asian landscaping Hollies was more true than the authors knew.

In short then, here’s a shrub we trip over rushing through the forest looking for the rare or noteworthy, while this humble shrub is notable in its own right as a valued landscape Holly, as a rhizome champ, as a natural shrubby “lawn” after fires, as a native cafeteria for wildlife, as a half-hearted tea, and as an Old World species far from home.  Perhaps it did come from Japan, and it is ok to rave.


Posted by on January 14, 2012 in Gallberry


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Dull Leaf Coffee isn’t THAT Dull

Dull Leaf Coffee

Psychotria sulzneri


Today John and George continued exploration of Mariposa Cane Slough Preserve in Pt. St. Lucie behind Sam’s Club.  Basing our species choice on beauty, today’s looker was the Dull Leaf Coffee, Psychotria sulzneri in full berry.   This species is one of the four Psychotria species in Florida, three of them native, two indigenous to our area.  The other local native is the Wild Coffee, Psychotria nervosa (the term “nervosa” refers to the leaf veins, not to a mental condition).

Psychotria is one of the largest Dicot genera, with over 1500 species around the world in warm climates.   Some, including Psychotria punctata introduced in southernmost Florida, have symbiotic bacterial translucent dots in the leaves.   Some produce psychoactive alkaloids, although the name “Psychotria,” is apparently not a direct reference to drugs, but rather to an ancient belief that species of this genus propped up the psyche, or soul.   Wild Coffees are related distantly to the coffee we drink, and so far as we know, drinking preparations from Psychotria is dangerous (see comments on drugs above).   Psychotria is in the Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae, an assemblage of many thousand species, including wildflowers (such as Innocence), garden selections (such as Ixora), medicines (such as Quinine), and weeds (such as Mexican “Clover”).

To transition into today’s chosen species, Charles F. and Pearl Sulzner were early Miami real estate investors who supported good causes, including botany, especially for the New York Botanical Garden.  John Kunkel  Small, Florida’s preeminent botanist and namer of P. sulzneri,  represented the New York Botanical Garden and was connected to Miami philanthropy.  He knew how to suck up. Charles Sulzner died tragically at age 85 after being clobbered  by a streetcar in St. Petersburg.

The fruits (photo by JB)

The stunning berries (actually, drupes) on Psychotira sulzneri  pass through a bright yellow phase on the way to scarlet, often resulting in flame-colored fruit displays, no doubt irresistible to birds.   We will come back to the amazing  flowers when the species is in bloom.

The most remarkable feature of Dull Leaf Coffee is not so colorful.    Our two local Psychotria species have starkly different leaf coloration.   Psychotria nervosa features high-gloss bright green.  Psychotria sulzneri , by contrast, has a deep green velvet-matte finish, with a tiny kiss of blue.  But why?  That leaf color is not common in the plant world, although it occurs in other species.  Folks with northern wildflower experience know “Wild-Ginger” (Asarum canadense) with similar coloration.    The leaves are also reminiscent of some Hydrangea foliage, or to a couple of grass buffs like us, a wee hint of Blue Maidencane (Amphicarpum muhlenbergianum).    What do all these have in common?  Shade.

To slide into speculation:     Psychotria nervosa is probably glossy as an adaptation to reflect excess sunbeams, just like a pilot’s mirrored sunglasses.    That would not imply an inability to tolerate shade—it can.   Perhaps delicate shade-tolerant photosynthetic mechanisms need that extra glossy sunscreen, just as the pilot’s delicate retinas need protection.

Rubiaceae stipule (photo by JB)

Psychotria sulzneri  is playing a different game.   Its deep sub-green anti-reflective solar panels  look like they are adapted to drink in every photon, allowing the species to flourish deep in the understory, which it does.  Perhaps P. sulzneri has developed its own sun protection.   When you go to the beach with sunblock it doesn’t show.  So much to research, so few opportunities.  Wouldn’t it be fun to be 22 years old, starting graduate school and looking for research projects with a lab and a grant!?

As members of the Coffee Family, psychotrias have a small flap (stipule) between the opposite leaf bases.  The inner surface of the stipule has on it tiny sticky fingers called colleters.  These secrete nectar;  the nectar presumably attracts ants; and the ants presumably defend their botanical sugar-daddy.  Apparently the Mariposa Coffees have escalated their deterrent threat by attracting Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes to stand guard.

By the Dull Leaf Coffeee (photo by John “snakes” Bradford)


Posted by on December 10, 2011 in Dull Leaf Coffee


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Broken Families, Underground Parasites, and Fruit-Stealin’ Stinkbugs


Schoepfia chrysophylloides (S. schreberi)

Schopfiaceae (Traditionally placed in Olacaceae, a DNA-splintered family)

Today as temperature plummeted, John and George strolled the Rocky Point Hammock near Port Salerno, Florida. Rocky Point is a small remnant of scrubby Coastal Hammock, fun to visit due to the ancient oaks and the diverse vegetation, including species we do not often encounter, such as the big beautiful sedge Cyperus tetragonus. The alpha species today was Graytwig in full bloom with jillions of tiny fragrant maroon-red flowers along the stems like holiday twinkle lights.

Schoepfia chry flowers jb

Except when in flower, Graytwig is a shy small tree or shrub recognized most readily by its namesake kinky gray twigs peeking out from under alternate, often-folded leaves with wavy margins.  The crushed leaves have a distinctive smell.  The pea-sized drupes go through a red phase before blackening.  Graytwig grows mostly along the southeast and central Florida coast, extending to the west side of the state to the south and into the West Indies and to South America.  There are 23 species of Schoepfia altogether around the world.

The flowers are tiny (1/8″ tall), fragrant, reddish-maroon cups clustered irregularly along the stems.  They are heterostylous.  That is, one strain has short styles and slightly elevated anthers, and the other strain has long styles and anthers positioned lower in the floral tube.  Readers interested in learning more about heterostyly as an adaptation to promote expanded genetic exchange are invited to an earlier Treasure Coast Natives article where we explored heterostyly in more detail in connection with Wild Coffee, another species abundant at Rocky Point. CLICK

So let’s jump ahead to another Graytwig oddity — it is a root parasite.  The roots make cone-shaped “suckers” (haustoria) able to penetrate and rob the roots of surrounding hosts of diverse species.  This is not rare in scrubby plants.  Other scrubish parasites include Love Vine, Black-Senna (Seymeria), Hog Plum (Ximenia), and Indian Pipes (Monotropa).  The parasitism in Monotropa is possibly significantly via mycorrhizal fungi,  and would be fascinating to know which additional plants swipe nutrients from each other via mycorrhizal (fungal) root connections.

In South Florida we see two extreme means of acquiring plant-life’s needs on our challenging soils:  parasitism and carnivory. Our parasitic plants tilt toward dry sandy habitats, and our parasites tilt toward wet marshy homes.  I guess the main problem in anoxic wet marshy mud is nitrogen, acquired by green carnivores ingesting bug-type victims.  The various gizmos and physiology flesh-eaters need to catch and digest wiggly prey may require ample water.  With dry-habitat plants (just speculating here) the main challenges can reasonably be assumed to be obtaining water and the benefits dissolved in it.   Wouldn’t it be interesting to know the details?  In any case, in dry places look for root parasites, and some above-ground ones too CLICK

Now here is something even weirder and more puzzling.  There seems to be a special relationship between stinkbugs and Schoepfia.  The Asian stinkbug Parastrachia japonensis is tied to Schoepfia jasminodora. Amazingly, the adult bugs lug the Schoepfia fruits back to their stinky nests. CLICK

Our own Schoepfia chrysollphylloides (as S. schreberi) is reported to be the host for stinkbug  Ramosiana insignis which consumes multiple organs, and for Vulsirea violacea, which specializes on the fruits.  We caught the stinkbug below in the act of messing with the Schoepfia fruits. (Note: According to,  V. nigrorubra and V. violacea were interpreted as the same species until recently.  Our photo matches the photos of V. nigrorubra on that site.  It would be interesting for someone with time on their hands to explore fully the relationship between the bug and the bush.)

Graytwig can be cultivated, although the Institute for Regional Conservation website Natives for Your Neighborhood  lists it as” extremely difficult to grow,” which might explain why this eye-pleaser is so infrequently encountered in native plant gardens.

Schoepfia with Sinkbug Vulsirea nigrorubra jb

                                                        Stinkbug on Schoepfia (by JB)


Posted by on December 22, 2012 in Graytwig


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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.

Hundreds of faded flowers, just a couple fruits

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.  

The pollen-producing anthers have placed their pollen on unripe stigmas (the columns at the flower centers), then bent down.

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.


Posted by on June 3, 2022 in Uncategorized


Do Flowers of a Feather Flock Together?

Old World Diamond Flower (Oldenlandia corymbosa) Rubiaceae (Coffee Family)

Rustweed (Polypremum procumbens) Tetrachondraceae


John and trekked out to where the wild things grow today, only to retreat beat by the heat.   (Not John, I was the wimp.)  But not before a familiar observation:   clustering of similar yet unrelated flowers in a specific habitat.  A hunch rooted only shallowly in the botanical literature, so we’re in the realm of suspicion, not fact.  Maybe that heat got to my head.

Ever visit a natural place and perceive many unrelated flowers to look alike, especially in coloration?     A wet meadow may feature bright yellow xyris, bright yellow St. Johnsworts, bright yellow coreopsis, bright yellow heleniums, bright yellow smallfruit beggarsticks, bright yellow ludwigias, and more, although not to the exclusion of other colors.   Large white giant whitetops and large white alligator-lily grow together.  Where does imagination end and correlation begin?

Color clustering might be conceivable if you look at it this way:  pollination is essential for existence, so a plant is going to exist only where its proper pollinators are.   Different types of pollinators have different frequencies in different habitats, influencing the plant species composition, and thus perhaps trends in flower color and size.

Furthermore, and only a notion, maybe there is positive feedback, say, for example, a happy place for bumblebees brings bumble-visited flowers, which then draw more bumblebees, and these in turn support more bumblebee-o-centric flowers.   Bees like yellow.

This morning’s site, Haney Creek Natural Area in Jensen Beach, Florida, has a dry, sun-cooked, sterile, disturbed gravel road with a preponderance of very small white flowers.  “The same” road with essentially the same species runs behind my home, where almost all the flowers were about ¼ inch or less in diameter and white.   All of the photos today are taken in one small flower patch at the same magnification except for the over-magnified Buttonweed whose flowers are essentially the same size as the others.  Maybe that harsh habitat fosters tough little bees or mini-flies adapted to tiny white blossoms.

That harsh environment is probably not a place for plant species with big, showy, “expensive” flowers to support large insects demanding abundant rewards in nectar or pollen.    Skimpy man habitat, skimpy flowers, skimpy pollinators, perhaps.

Floral resemblance among the species growing intermixed there can be striking.  Below are photos of two unrelated plants:  native Rustweed (Polypremum procumbens) and non-native Old World Diamond Flower (Oldenlandia corymbosa).    Their flowers are “stamped from the same mold.”

Polypremum close flower


oldenlandia close

Old World Diamond Flower

Spermacoce verticillata flower close

Non-native Buttonweed was growing among the others, and has much the same look.   This photo is at much higher magnification than the rest.

As an aside, Rustweed goes through a remarkable seasonal color change.    It starts out green and as the summer progresses switches to a coppery rusty color.


Rustweed in the rusty phase.

The other species consorting with the Rustweed and Diamondflower looked much the same too.   What makes the similarities even weirder is that the “flowers” are not all true flowers.  In the Canadian Horseweed they are a collection of smaller flowers collected into a white flower-head.   In the Sandmat and in the Euphorbia, the “petals” are itsy white leaves surrounding smaller flowers.  Yet they all have converged on the same general appearance, perhaps to accommodate the same floral visitors.

Boerhavia close

Boerhavia erecta, mixed with the others.  Not native.

Euphorbia graminea close

Grassleaf Euphorbia, hanging with the others.   Not technically a flower,  but posing like one.   It is a cluster of small flowers associated with those small petal-like leaves. The big green lump is a fruit.

Chamaesyce close

Sandmat, another non-flower disguised as a small white flower,  constructed similarly and related to the euphorbia immediately above.

conyza canadensis close

And another in the “little white flower” patch. Canadian Horseweed.  The “flower” is a flower head made of many.

There must be something good about that “little white flower” look, because everyone on the berm is doing it.   And that good thing is probably shared pollinators.    Just a hunch.

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Posted by on August 4, 2017 in Uncategorized


Firebush has Burning Needles

Hamelia patens

(Hamelia honors naturalist Henri L. DuHamel du Monceau.  Patens means spreading.)

Rubiaceae (Coffee Family)


Firebush.  Not taken today.  In fruit now.   Although memory fails me in some cases, all or most of today’s non-microscope photos are by John Bradford.

Today John’s and my Kiplinger  activity centered on photo equipment rather than exploration,  making this a good occasion for Firebush.  This colorful, drug-bearing shrub or small tree will ring bells with gardeners beyond those dedicated to native species.


As with most species that slip into mainstream gardening, Firebush over many years has wandered at the hand of humans around and far beyond its broad range from South America to Florida, divvied up into cultivars in far-flung nurseries, and redistributed willy nilly.  Its garden history is as willy as South Africa and as nilly as China.

My first encounter with Firebush was in the Caribbean, not Florida.    This sort of mixed up globe-trotting pattern is obviously standard for any given garden species.   I’m going to leave its cultivation to the innumerable websites concerned with growing stuff.  To summarize the fine points of cultivating Firebush: plant it, go away.


Or let the birds plant it for you, dispersing seeds from the pea-sized berries.    As is true of many species, the fruits mature through a red phase, then black, the two colors often clustered close together.   The plant world is rife with red and black juxtaposed as an attractant color combo for birds.    If you think about it and watch, you find red and black together in seeds, fruits, and flowers.


Let’s go a little more obscure into the secret life of Hamelia.  Firebush belongs to the Coffee Family, and like its kin, the shrub has paired leaves (or leaves whorled in 3’s) with a triangular flap called a stipule on the stem between the leaf bases.   Many plants have stipules, but that triangle between the leaf bases is a Coffee Family specialty.   When the twig is young, those triangular flap stipules clasp the baby stem tip before the leaves grow.


Stipule, triangular flap between two leaf bases.  The bud has grown and the stem is elongating behind the stipule.


This will help.  Picture the boy’s head as the stem bud.  The triangular sides to his hat are stipules.  CLICK

In many Coffees, the stipules hide a palisade of brown micro-teeth called colleters.    The colleter secretions presumably feed protective ants,  and/or protectively varnish the young bud tip under the stipular hat.


This is Wild-Coffee with a stipule removed to  reveal the brown glandular colleters.


Oddly though, in Firebush the colleters are either missing or too inconspicuous for me to find.  Instead, the Firebush stipules have a wet-looking glossy inner surface sealed tightly against tender stem tip.   As the tip elongates, the stipules remain on the side of the lengthening stem awhile, eventually to wither and drop.


Firebush stipule.No colleters apparent.  Instead the inner face (exposed) is wet-looking and sealed tightly around the bud by the two lips you see along the edges.    The (removed) bud was in that glossy groove.  A tight fit.

The protective mechanisms get weirder.  Many unrelated plants develop microscopic needle-shaped crystals called raphides inside their cells.    Did you every carry an armload of prunings to the compost heap, only to suffer a burning sensation on your exposed forearm?   Might be those little needles doing their job.   For decades, I (and many others) assumed the raphides to work merely by pricking the flesh, and then maybe melting into irritating acid.    But no…wrong…here is yet another example of the newly emerging complexities of the green world.

Biologist Kataro Konno and collaborators in 2014  documented the ability of raphide crystals to inject protein-destroying enzymes when they penetrate.  They give the victim a toxic shot, or a thousand of them!  More  precisely, the tiny pricks punch holes in cell membranes, allowing the toxic enzyme associated with the raphides to enter the victim’s cells.    Punji sticks.


Raphides from Firebush.  They look lke pickup sticks.

Flip over a leaf and look at the corners where the side veins join the main vein.    With a magnifying glass you can spot kinky white hair tufts.   Those nests, called domatia, presumably house predatory mites on  duty defending the foliage from leaf-bothering mites.


Firebush domatium, guardhouse for predatory mites

And speaking of mites, Firebush is a key player in research concerned with flower mites catching an inter-blossom lift from pollinating hummingbirds.  (Firebush benefits from many pollinators, including butterflies, especially where hummingbirds are scarce.    In its truly  tropical range Firebush seemingly depends mostly on hummingbirds for “the birds and the bees.”)   Flower mites are parasites able to steal pollen and nectar from the blossoms they invade.    Bad news for Firebush!    In some studies, those microscopic arachno-rascals have reduced the pollen and nectar substantially.     They come, they raid, and then fortified on pilfered booty they reproduce, only then to hop into a hummingbird’s nostrils airborne to the next bush.

the end

Extra notes for inquiring minds…

For  taxonomy within the species,  written by  botanist, Dr. Thomas Elias,  who revised Hamelia back in the 70s and then revisted Hamelia patens as a cultivated complex far more recently.   CLICK

Persons interested in more depth on the hitch-hiking mites, CLICK

Penetrating article on the raphide needle effect:   CLICKITY CLICK


Posted by on January 13, 2017 in Firebush, Uncategorized



Cephalanthus occidentalis (= “western flower-head”)

Rubiaceae (Coffee Family)

This morning John and I visited the Cummings Library, Palm City, Florida, to lead a brave and heat-tolerant posse into a small Hypericum Marsh associated with the Library.   Even tiny natural areas can be diverse, in this case with everything from flowering Loblolly Bay Trees to tiny insectivorous Sundews.    One of my forever favorites is in bloom there, Buttonbush with its spherical bleached white flowerheads fragrant like perfume in Macys, and buzzing with bugs.

Cephalanthus occidentalis 1 medium jb

Sputniks by John Bradford

The agreeable shrub has a place in ornamental gardens, sometimes under the fitting cultivar name ‘Sputnik’.   (It looks far more like a virus but that name wouldn’t sell many.)

It is better off in the swamp.   In fact, Palm City is my second Cephalanthus encounter within a few days, the prior in Michigan.   There we were exploring botanically a remote wetland notable for housing the rare Copper Bellied Watersnake.  Zoology and botany converge:  the threatened snake likes to linger on exposed Buttonwood root masses to the point that today’s shrub is recommened for planting to restore the snake habitat.

Cephalanthus medium close jb


You might ask,   “why does the shrub have oversized irregular roots exposed up where snakes hang out?”    Plants in wet soils have diverse mechanisms to cope with deoxgenated mud.  Many have ductwork to ventilate their nether-regions.   Some use fermentation down there.    Some sprawl surface roots across the wet mud.

Buttonbush has its own approach.   It sprouts tangles of new roots above the suffocating ooze.  The bush adjusts the height of its supplementary roots to rising and falling water levels.

Cephalanthus root

White roots coming out of the stem at the trunk base, just above the wet mud

What pollinates those fragrant flower balls?   Just about every nectar-loving creature able to cruise a swamp.    Perhaps moths are the original chief agents, but butterflies,  bees, flies, and even the odd hummingbird participate.

And to keep asking questions, why have hundreds of tiny flowers clustered in a compact head, as opposed to making one big blossom?   The textbook-type answer is that a visit by a lone pollinator fertilizes many individual flowers in one swell foop.    The flowers then mature into countless little dry fruits dispersed by migrating waterfowl swamp to swamp.

Look closely at a flower.  Anything missing?   The big stigmas jut out of the flowers like Q-tips radiating out of a golf ball.   Stigmas are the female pollen-receptive organs.    The male pollen-making anthers, by contrast, remain hidden.   They release pollen while in the bud onto the stigmas, frosting them yellow pollen, then the stigmas emerge all yellow-dusty-topped.   But wait—wouldn’t that be self-pollination?

Cephalanthus stigmas

Q-tips.  Stigmas covered with yellow pollen.

Not generally, and here is why:   the self-pollen on the stigmas dusts off onto visiting insects but cannot consummate the sexual cycle on the flower of origin.    The only pollen the stigma lets proceed sexually is that the pollinators drop off from other Buttonbush individuals.  So then, on one stigma there are two pollen populations, some grains passively awaiting departure, and recent arrivals ready to boogie.

A long history of service in food or medicine does not mark a species as safe to ingest.    Among many historical ethnobotanical uses of Buttonbush, its main recurrent traditional role is as you might use aspirin, relief of pain and discomforts.   But please stick with CVS.  There are also bioactive compounds able to cause convulsions, paralysis, and vomiting, even fatally.  Don’t ingest wild plants!

Cephalanthus occidentalis 3 stipule jb

Triangular flap, stipule, between leaf bases.   Colleters are hidden beneath. By JB

The leaves are opposite or in whorls, with a triangular flap (a stipule) on the stem between the adjacent leaf bases.   Peel back that flap and find erect micro-fingers called colleters (CALL-uh-ters), as in many Coffee Family species.   These cryptic glands are not studied well.   They secrete mucilage when young, probably to paint the immature bud protectively, although conceivably also to feed symbiotic ants in exchange for defensive services.    This question needs study.

Cepha;anthus colleters

Scanning electron microscope view of the colleters on a young stem, stipule removed, courtesy of Dr. Robert Wise, University of Wisconsin


Posted by on July 29, 2016 in Buttonbush, Uncategorized


OMG! There’s Buttonweed Fouling My Beautiful Lawn! (And my beautiful garbage dump)

Virginia Buttonweed

Diodia virginiana


Today John and George visited the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority, a dump with benefits: a network of nature trails and ponds and fun times communing with wetland plants and a sunbathing gator.  CLICK for a cyber-visit to the landfill.

As a fan of this native wetland gem, I am dismayed that the suburban lawn-culture has turned Virginia Buttonweed into a reviled hate-weed.  Is the most interesting thing about a wildflower which carcinogen to spray on it?   Spray HERE to glimpse the horror!.

Or go read the garden blogs—you’d think VBW was the Crack of Lawn Doom.  So then to join the ranks of condescending blog-pundits holding forth on what to do if Buttonweed affliction keeps you awake at night: Enjoy it!  (Then turn down the sprinklers.)

VBW is native across much of the eastern U.S. and extends into South America, its spread conceivably aided by migrating waterfowl.  The plant can repopulate from busted fragments, and Canada Geese reportedly eat it. Perhaps they are travel agents, sharing the beauty from golf course to golf course.  Also, the little barrel-shaped fruits become corky and float away.  Today was a good monsoon day for that.  Did I mention that the species is semi-aquatic, probably adapted to wet disturbed shores where floating matters?

In recent times Virginia Buttonweed has turned into a weedy turf pest in the Southeastern U.S., and far beyond, including Asia.  Why has this cute little puppy become a bad dog?  Well, it’s adapted to intermittently wet disturbed sunny places with impaired drainage.  In other words, stream banks, marshy fields, and suburban lawns on compacted soil soused with automatic sprinklers.

Diodia virginiana yesterday (JB)

Diodia virginiana yesterday (JB)

Among the plant’s odd adaptations are two features sometimes found in other members of the Coffee Family.  First, the tissues contain tiny acid needles probably there to minimize grazing. (Even if the needles do not bother a Goose, they might discourage insects.)  Secondly, around the stem at each node there is a saclike membrane (a specialized stipule).  The membrane is a translucent ziplock bag that holds water around the developing young flowers, around the young fruits, and possibly around tender points of root origin.  The plant can (as I speculate!) collect and retain moisture around its key parts during dry moments in its amphibious life cycle.  No wonder it likes those lawn sprinklers.  CLICK this link to see the membrane in Diodia (teres) as the white cup with fingers on the rim, surrounding the base of the flower.  Having a similar adaptation and even more prevalent in Florida turf is Mexican-Clover (Richardia grandiflora).

This little wildflower is one tough customer.  It can regrow from it own fragments.  The stem sprouts roots where it contacts the ground.  There is a report of deeply buried seeds sprouting, this being perhaps an adaptation to being covered in silt?  And most intriguingly, the species reputedly forms underground flowers, a feat (if accurate) it shares with its fellow-member of the Coffee Family, Innocence (Houstonia procumbens) and with other unrelated local species, such as Blue Maidencane Grass.  In the old sketch below, it looks like the bottom-most fruits might have been in the mud.

Sketch from the Internet.  Selected to show the lowdown flowers (fruits).

Sketch from the Internet. Selected to show the lowdown flowers (fruits).

You may ask yourself, “what has this creepy plant got to do with coffee?”  Glad you asked:  it is fun to find out the family relationships of familiar plants, because then family resemblance shine through.  Look how similar the Virginia Buttonweed blossom is to the Coffee flower.  The Buttonweed fruit even looks like a little coffee bean.

All in the family:  Buttonweed flowers looks similar to related coffee flower.

All in the family: Buttonweed flowers looks similar to related coffee flower.

Coffee flower (from Top Tropicals plant nursery)

Coffee flower (from Top Tropicals plant nursery)


Posted by on November 9, 2013 in Virginia Buttonwood


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