One Tree, Two Seasons

In April of 2016, the fuzzy little buds covering the nondescript tree at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge seemed to invite touching. Both softer and more stiff than I’d imagined, they offered no hint of what they might become.

Two weeks later, with the tree in riotous bloom, identification became easier. I’d found an example of a south Texas tree commonly known as Mexican olive.

Flowers and buds of the Anacahuita, or Mexican Olive  (Cordia boissieri)

Native from the Rio Grande valley of Texas south to San Luis Potosi in Mexico, it consistently blooms year-round. Where it’s been introduced into landscapes farther north, in areas such as Austin and San Antonio, its flowering is most intense in late spring and early summer.

Through the spring of 2016, I admired its buds and flowers, but never saw the tree actually bearing fruit. Then, in July of this year, I was scanning the garden at the refuge entrance when I saw a strange, acorn-shaped object that had fallen onto the ground.

Looking up, I realized it had fallen off the Mexican olive. After more than a year, I finally had seen the completion of the tree’s natural cycle: from bud, to flower, to fruit.

Despite my fantasies about Texas tapenade, I learned the fruit is best left to birds, squirrels, deer, and livestock, since the tree is part of the Borage family and isn’t related to edible olives. Although sometimes made into jelly, its consumption can lead to side effects such as dizziness, and it’s generally considered unpalatable to humans.

That said, it’s a beautiful Texas native and a reminder that, when it comes to nature, return visits can yield unpredictable delights.

Comments always are welcome.


44 thoughts on “One Tree, Two Seasons

  1. Linda, the photos are simply wonderful. I know I use wonderful to the point of abuse but gee I simply can’t come up with anything better unless it might be wondrous. The brown and yellow colors are so vibrant and appeal to my eye because I like the earthy combination. I love that little tree and have never researched it to see if it will weather the cold north of Austin. I think I shall do that as soon as I finish looking at the pics one more time.

    1. I’ll take “wonderful” any day, Yvonne. I think the whole plant qualifies as wonderful, although the buds might be my favorite stage.

      I’m not sure you could get it to thrive in your area. One page did suggest they might be more frost-hardy than is usually assumed, and they have been known to come back from the roots after a freeze. One suggestion to a person in Luling was to keep the plant smaller and in a pot, so that it could be protected more easily. One thing that did occur to me was that advice offered in articles more than ten years old might not apply. One, dated 2001, said there was no way the tree could survive in Austin or San Antonio, but that clearly isn’t the case now.

      1. I searched for articles also and the tree is not considered hardy above Austin. I think my zone is considered 8A or 8B can’t remember which. It would be nice in a large planter but- that is just too much to move into a shed or shop where I keep some heat lamps for a few potted plants.

        1. I understand that. I have some cactus that need to be cut back and restarted in smaller pots. Two of them are so heavy now that they’re going to stay right where they are until I do that — there’s just no way for me to move them.

    1. It’s really something. In its native range, it apparently blooms nearly year round, and often is used along roadsides or in other urban settings, much as we use oleanders and palms.

  2. What striking plant textures you captured there.
    Pays to circle back. Sometimes I think life these days is so fast and one way, we miss so much of the important little details.
    Nature has quite a grocery store for her creatures.
    Cool post

    1. Speaking of the grocery store, I thought it was interesting that there was plenty of uneaten fruit scattered beneath the tree. I wasn’t sure if the tree had dropped them early for some reason, and they weren’t ripe enough to appeal, or if the neighborhood critters didn’t recognize them as food.

      You’re right about circling back. There’s always something that’s missed along the way. Even on the same path, I’ve found that I see different things going out and coming back, and there’s no predicting what will have arrived or departed from day to day.

  3. Beautiful photos, Linda.

    I know it is besides the point but with the discovery of acorns of oak trees I entered my addiction to smoking.

    As school kids, keen to try anything including smoking, our foray into that was hollowing the acorns and sticking hollow reeds into them converting them into pipes. Till this day I taste the adventure and inventiveness of that utensil.

    I haven’t smoked for decades now, but what a memory I still live off!

    1. An acorn pipe? I’ve never heard of that, but of course we had our own variation in the corncob pipe.

      I often saw corncob pipes sitting around, but I never saw someone actually smoking one. For us kids, it was smoking corn silk cigarettes back behind the barn that was a coming of age ritual. I suspect every midwesterner of my generation gave that a try, although it was the adventure and not the cornsilk that was most appealing. It never occurred to us that the grownups knew exactly what we were up to, and were letting us discover for ourselves that not every forbidden fruit is particularly tasty.

  4. We’ve lost our connection to the landscape. When you live out on the land, you come to know what grows there, and you come to know it through the seasons. You make connections and learn the ecology of the place and how it slots together. The flowers are lovely. They make me think of white hibiscus.

    1. Here in my suburbia, any connection to a natural landscape is minimal, unless you have property where you can garden. The turning of the seasons is marked primarily by hordes of landscapers digging out well-established, beautifully blooming plants, and replacing them with whatever will keep things pretty for the next season. I saw some garden crews ripping out petunias and planting pansies last week, and thought, “Well, winter’s coming.” I don’t mind the plants, and understand the desire to keep things attractive, but there are some native options that would do just as well.

      The flowers are gorgeous. These were just slightly tired, but the newly opened ones are almost crepe-papery. Some day I’ll get a good photo of a fresh one, and you’ll be even more impressed.

  5. The white flower took my breath away! Pity about the tapenade, but I’m curious to know whether you could grow the tree from that fruit/drupe? Now that would really be the circle of life!
    From the look of the leaves, it appears it would be a tough plant able to withstand difficult conditions.

    1. In fact, you can grow the tree from both seeds and cuttings. I read that it takes a good bit of water while getting established, but after that it’s drought tolerant, and just as hardy as you suggest. You noticed the fuzzy leaves: one of the adaptations that makes it so tough — and so touchable.

  6. Patient observation has its rewards. As it is part of the Borage family, I wondered if the flower might be edible. But the only references I found for the flower concerned its fragrance. Edible or not, it’s very beautiful.

    1. I did read that in certain parts of Mexico the leaves are used as a medicinal tea to treat rheumatism and bronchial congestion. Still, the cautions about dizziness — in cattle as well as in people — would make me cautious about trying it. On the other hand, I remember a good case of bronchitis about ten or fifteen years ago, and if I experienced that again, I might give it a go.

      I only discovered borage a year or so ago. I wouldn’t have known what it was, but the woman whose field I was roaming gave me the ID, and a little lesson in its value. I was going to post about it when I started this blog, and the photos still are lingering in the files. Given the borage connection now, I should pull them out.

    1. Well, despite the name, they aren’t really “olives” — just an olive-looking fruit. As Steve suggests in the next comment, it’s probably a name that came from the shape. There are some suggestions that Cabeza de Vaca and his men ate them while they were roaming around the Rio Grande Valley, partly because their record makes mention of the dizziness they experienced after consuming the “small, green fruit.” Who knows? It may have looked like an olive to them, too — until they discovered it wasn’t.

    1. I’m sure you’re right that it was shape, not taste, that gave the tree its common name. You’re also right that those white flowers always bring a smile.

      I was curious about the meaning of anacahuita, and Merriam-Webster suggests the name is “borrowed from Mexican Spanish anacahuita… probably borrowed from Nahuatl āmacuahuitl ‘tree…from which bark for paper is obtained,’ from āmatl ‘paper’ + cuahuitl ‘tree.'”

      I’m going to have to take a better look at the bark the next time I’m down there.

    1. Patience is a virtue — as is being in the right place at the right time. You no doubt experience that in your location, too. Roaming a limited area isn’t always the worst thing in the world; it gives a sense of the rhythms of life, and the importance of subtle differences.

  7. The flowers are terrific, “crepe-papery” is right. I’m glad you photographed the buds, they look like a slightly glittery fabric we used to get in grade school for craft projects and costumes, don’t know what it’s called.
    We’ve still got some fall anemones and mums everywhere, but just had our first frost, so any remaining petunias and pansies both are living on borrowed time “up north”.
    Dizzy Jelly sounds kind of fun! Sometimes you can get a bit light-headed, when you use a straw to get the jelly out of a jelly doughnut.

    1. I know exactly which fabric you’re thinking of, and I can’t find the name of it, either. For that matter, I can’t find the name of the low-napped, fuzzy covering used on toys back in the 50s. I found it once after a long search, but wasn’t smart enough to bookmark it and now I can’t remember what it’s called. But I certainly remember the bear I had that was covered with the stuff, and it’s the first thing I thought of when I encountered the buds.

      No frost here, but we did dip below 60 last night and the night before. Yesterday, the relative humidity was around 36%, and no one could stand to go indoors. We’ve bottomed out and are on the way back up, but the 90s may be done for the year. It’s about time.

      When I hit that sentence about using a straw to get jelly out of a doughnut, I started laughing and couldn’t stop for a while. I don’t know why it struck me as hilarious — except that it is. Clearly, you’ve had an experience I never knew possible. I do pass a DunkinDonuts on my way to work. Perhaps they have straws, too…

  8. It is a wonderful native tree. I’ve often wished that I had room for it. Your photos are beautiful–I love seeing the whole cycle of the bloom-to-fruit.

    1. When I saw that the tree can be found in Austin, I wondered if you knew it. The flowers are a veritable feast for pollinators, including bees and hummingbirds, so it would make a great addition to your garden. But you’re right — it’s impossible to grow it all. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy them anyway!

  9. Nature again proves that practical can be beautiful. Lovely flowers attract insects that help pollinate the plants so the life cycle can continue with its forever routine. Great photos, Linda. –Curt

    1. Even the post office agrees with you, Curt. Have you seen their “Protect Pollinators” stamps? They’re really quite nice, and they’re in the “forever” line of stamps — a different sort of forever routine, but much appreciated. I think it would have been cool if they’d included bats, too, but I suppose butterflies and bees sell better.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the photos — and I’m glad I noticed the fruits.

  10. What gorgeous blossoms — sure pure and delicate! And the first photo makes me want to touch these fuzzy buds. I’d never heard of a Mexican olive before. Too bad it’s not for human consumption. I wonder if olive trees grow in our country? Can’t say I’ve ever researched that — gee, there are so many things we don’t know!

    1. You would have enjoyed the feel of those buds, Debbie. The leaves are fuzzy, too; apparently the little hairs help the plant retain moisture.

      Olive trees do grow in this country. One of my customers has a substantial grove northeast of Houston, and one of my readers presently is trying to keep the deer out of her olives in California. You can see some photos from a past harvest here. One question answered, an infinity of questions still waiting.

    1. No, there’s no relation. Botanically, they’re from different families, even though the buds do resemble pussy willow. The buds are much larger than pussy willow catkins: perhaps four times larger.

      I was interested to see the flowers described on several sites as two or two-to-three inches across. These that I photographed were as much as four inches across (the size of my palm), and the fruits were good-sized, too. Next time, I’m going to have a ruler with me.

    1. They do have that look, don’t they? They’re not as soft and silky as I remember the pussy willows, but they’re every big as attractive — and touchable. We non-gardeners/non-farmers sometimes have to work a little harder or longer to see the whole cycle, but it can be done. When it happens, it’s entirely rewarding, as you know!

  11. It’s so satisfying to follow a plant through its various stages, especially when it’s new and there are discoveries along the way. You describe that journey very clearly – love the photos, too!

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