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Mystery Plant: Don't let sour taste outweigh tree's many sweet traits

Petruchio: “Nay, come, Kate, come: you must not look so sour.”

Katharina: “It is my fashion, when I see a crab.”

Petruchio: “Why, here’s no crab; and therefore look not sour.”

— :The Taming of the Shrew," Act II, Scene 1.

More humor from Shakespeare. This time, you would need to know what Elizabethans would call a sour apple.

Did you know that the Mystery Plant column was developed as a way of advertising the free public service the University of South arolinaC offers in identifying unknown plants? Anyone —everyone — is invited to send us a sample of an unknown plant, or a photo (printed or electronic), and we will do our best to figure out you’ve got, and get you the results as soon as possible.

Plant samples can be mailed in a small plastic bag containing a damp paper towel. (Poke a few small holes in the bag so things inside don’t get too tiresome.) The mailing address is Herbarium, Department of Biological Sciences, USC, Columbia, SC 29208, and you could also use my email,

If you send a physical specimen, try to include flowers and fruits, if possible. If we get enough of a specimen, we frequently try to turn it into a permanent pressed, dried specimen for the herbarium, so keep that in mind. You can send any kind of plant, including houseplants, garden plants, aquatic plants trees, weeds, plants from bouquets, or whatever.

Our Mystery Plant this week bears one of the most beautiful flowers of the spring, and of course, it comes from a tree. It’s a small tree, usually no more than 30 feet tall or so, and it likes to form thickets. Our charming little tree is native to the Southeast, scattered in woodlands and forests from Maryland to Missouri and Texas, and down into northern Florida. In full bloom, a grove of these trees makes a breathtaking scene.

The crown is rounded, and the branches are thorny. Sometimes the thorns themselves will sprout leaves. Before the flowers open, the plant sports a profusion of attractive buds, which tend to be shaped like pearls. (I’m wondering why nobody has started using these buds as decorations for desserts. The buds are red or pink; don’t you think they’d look good sprinkled on top of a bowl of vanilla ice cream?) The fully opened flower has five prominent pale pink petals, and plenty of stamens.

What’s even better than these beautiful flowers is the magnificent fragrance they produce: sweet and delicate, but strong enough to waft around the neighborhood. Now, if I were a bird, I’d want to have a nest in this tree, no doubt about it.

But wait, there’s more. Each flower will eventually produce what we call a pome, and of course that means that it is structurally the same as an apple or pear. The hard little fruits become a beautiful green, and basically stay that way. The fruits tend to be too sour for most people, but the fruits can be turned into tasty preserves or tart cider. And, of course, a lot of birds and other wildlife find them delicious.

Answer: "Southern crabapple,” Malus angustifolia.


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