Gulf Coast Autumn: Red

Carolina wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum)

As if trying to make amends for our relative lack of autumn color, the vibrant fruit of Carolina Wolfberry shines among Gulf coast ditches, ravines, swamps, and marshes. Also known as Carolina desert-thorn, creeping wolfberry, or Christmas berry, the plant is found from Texas to Georgia: one of several salt and drought resistant plants known as halophytes that thrive here.

Its rounded, succulent leaves serve as a clue to its identity, as does the fruit’s resemblance to a cherry tomato. In fact, Carolina wolfberry is a member of the potato-and-tomato family, the Solanaceae. Its flowers recall the various nightshade species, although the plant is distinguished by having only four petals rather than the five common to nightshades.

Once recognized, the plant seems ubiquitous, appearing even in urban ditches and sometimes in standing water. Its toughness is important to over-wintering whooping cranes at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, which depend on its fruit for energy restoration after their migration. Although the bulk of their winter diet is comprised of blue crabs, Carolina wolfberry can contribute 21–52% of crane energy intake early in the wintering period.

Attractive and nourishing, the fruit is a delightful addition to the landscape, and a reminder that not every bit of autumnal red needs to hang from a tree.


Comments always are welcome.


48 thoughts on “Gulf Coast Autumn: Red

  1. Your photo of the berries is beautiful. So good to learn of a staple food for the cranes, and that it is thriving. I just heard of a study of birds that are eating the berries of non-native shrubs during migration. At first I thought this was good news until I learned that the berries do not nourish the birds, and they arrive at their destinations badly depleted.

    1. Your mention of those non-nutritive berries reminds me of articles I’ve read about the harm that tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) can cause to monarch butterflies. (Here’s a brief Q&A from the Xerces Society.)

      I’m glad the wolfberry is thriving, because the whooping cranes are on the move, and there’s an increase in their numbers this year. The first pair has arrived at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, so there soon will be others — especially behind this front that’s just rolled through.

      1. I just mentioned to Rob the effect red cars have on police and the highway patrol. Choose your highways carefully and you ought to be ok. Isn’t the limit 80 in some places out west?

        1. Yes, the speed limit is 80 on a few stretches out in west Texas. Unfortunately, though, the speed limit in many other places is significantly below where I think it should be. Clearly I’m not the only one who feels that way, as I’ve often observed that the flow of traffic on certain highways is a good 10 mph above the posted limit.

    1. Isn’t it a great red? A car that color would be a show-stopper, although it’s always been common knowledge that the police pay special attention to red cars — you’d better keep it a couple of mph under the limit, or maybe even five.

      The Carolina Wolfberries would be right in line with Wolfman Jack and Howlin’ Wolf. Then again, maybe they could open for the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

    1. I found some three years ago at our local nature center, and went back this year to see if they still were around. Despite the mowers and despite the flooding, they were thriving along the creek, and were the prettiest thing around. I’ve read that they turn purple as they age, and you can see a little purple beginning to develop above a couple of the berries.

    1. It’s such a clear, pure red. Apparently they turn purple as they age, but this color is gorgeous. It no doubt helps the birds and other animals find them, too, since they spread deep into thickets created by other plants.

    1. Aren’t they, though? Do you ever read Dolce Bellezza’s blog? Her passion — apart from literary and translated fiction — is red lipstick, and if this could be turned into a lipstick, she’d buy a dozen on the spot. I don’t even wear red, and I might be tempted.

    1. I was so pleased that I found some this year — and not far from where I took the photo of those sad, mud-encrusted leaves after the flood. We’ve had enough rain now that much of the mud has been washed away, and even though nearly everything still is green, these hints of the turning season are wonderful.

    1. There’s nothing like clear, pure color to gladden the heart, and these certainly gladdened mine. I’m happy you find them pleasing, as well — thank you for saying so!

    1. It really was interesting to look at the Florida map to see where this grows in your state. It’s all around the peninsula, on both west and east coasts, but not in the interior. On the other hand, there’s a gap on the east coast — St. Lucie, Broward, and Palm aren’t included as places where it can be found. I couldn’t help wondering if development is part of the reason. There may be other reasons it doesn’t like that part of the coast, of course.

      I did find something amusing while I was snooping around. When I saw “South Florida Crane Watch,” I wondered which species of bird was involved. The answer is: none. Someone has developed an interactive map of the locations of all the construction cranes in Miami!

      1. It doesn’t surprise me Linda. Way too much construction in Palm Beach County and it’s still going on!! Nurseries, farms and ranches that I moved to be near – Gone!
        I remember when periwinkles grew like weeds around here – now it’s hard to find Any!! Barely see an armadillo or opposom, fox – squirrels are getting scarse – scary.

    1. Actually, the fruits are edible. Opinions on the taste vary from writer to writer, but it’s the other parts of the plant that are toxic. I was surprised to find that one of the newest food crazes, goji berries , also are known as wolfberry and are in the nightshade family. Another species, Lycium berlandieri , grows farther west and has white flowers. I think I’ll stick to my tomatoes, but it’s good to know this is a primary food for birds and small mammals.

  2. I was wondering along with Tina whether it was poisonous, but the whooping cranes don’t seem to think so. As for the red color, I looked out the window and it is about the same shade as our pickup. Good photos, Linda. The red does stand out while it stands in for fall colors. –Curt

    1. I added a comment or two in my reply to Tina about the fruits. They are edible, but not the rest of the plant. It tickles me to think of you with a red pickup. All I can see is that truck with the bed loaded down with the world’s biggest pile of pumpkins. Now, that’s fall!

    1. As so often happens, writing about something often leads to learning about something. Both your poroporo and my wolfberry are in the family Solanaceae, but the wolfberry is in the genus Lycium, and the poroporo is in the genus Solanum. However! My next post will show a yellow berry that’s even more similar to yours, and it does belong with the other Solanum species. And, it should be noted, it’s quite toxic, being one of the nightshades.

      1. I look forward to seeing that one. I do have nightshade in my garden sometimes, but not deadly nightshade as far as I know. I do not intend to taste test however!

    1. At least one pair of cranes has been documented at the Aransas refuge now, so it won’t be long until the rest arrive. The refuge suffered from the hurricane winds and storm surge of Harvey, and I know that there’s been a tremendous amount of work going on, trying to repair the infrastructure that helps to support the cranes. An article in the Victoria Advocate says:

      “Water wells needed during droughts by endangered whooping cranes will be repaired thanks to a $75,000 grant. [The wells] replenish freshwater ponds the cranes drink from….Some of the repairs will include replacing solar panels and control boxes on the wells.

      The grant comes from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and is part of a larger grant given to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cover Harvey’s damage to its southwest region, said Wade Harrell, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ whooping crane recovery coordinator.

      According to the National Weather Service, the region where the wells are located received between 1 and 2 inches of rain in September. Despite this, salinity in the freshwater ponds is still a concern [since] most of the wells are shallow and were inundated by Harvey’s storm surge.

      Elizabeth Smith, senior whooping crane scientist for the International Crane Foundation, said the cranes can tolerate ‘moderately brackish water, but when it approaches saline, they cannot drink it.”

      As a side note on salinity, one of the oddities post-Harvey was the number of fresh-water fish being caught near the jetties in Galveston. The amount of fresh water rushing through the bay system led to bluegills and catfish being washed into the Gulf. Things are back to normal now, but it was a matter of great amusement and consternation for a while.

    1. Just don’t nibble on nightshades without checking and double-checking. Then, triple check. It’s a huge family, with many genera, and some are toxic, or even deadly: belladonna, datura (jimsonweed), and a host of plants commonly known as nightshades (such as our silverleaf nightshade) all qualify. There are a couple of nightshades here that keep their berries all year long, because nothing wants to eat them. I’ve come to believe that fruit hanging on a plant months after being produced is one of nature’s little warning labels.

      One the other hand, it’s true that even the most deadly can be useful in some circumstances. When I had my cataract surgery, I’m sure atropine drops were used to dilate my eyes, and that ability to “brighten” the eyes gave rise to the common name for the deadly nightshade: belladonna, or “beautiful woman.”

      Historically, Italian women refined an extract from the berries of Atropa belladonna to dilate their pupils. Unfortunately, prolonged use caused blurred vision and permanent blindness: a not so beautiful result. I want to see my tomatoes and eggplants, thank you very much!

    1. Isn’t it, though? If only they would last until Christmas; they’d make fine decorations. But I fear they’ll be finished by then — more reason to enjoy their gloriousness now.

  3. Lycium carolinianum , Carolina Wolfberry is available in the nursery trade but I’ve not seen it locally but I bet the Natural Gardner in Austin probably sells the shrub . According to literature it is tolerant of a wide variety of soils but it likes moisture and therefore I’m not sure if it would thrive unless given wet feet. I read also that the berries are edible and taste similar to a tomato. I just don’t think I’d give it a try though, All sorts of wildlife are attracted to this plant so it would be great to have a few shrubs if one could satisfy its needs.

    The photo is beautiful and as you more or less hinted, we in Texas, appreciate beauty where ever it can be found.

    1. There’s another native species of wolfberry that might be more suited to your area, Yvonne. It’s Lycium texanum, which grows farther west and which is more heat and drought tolerant. There’s a profile of it here. It does say it’s endemic to that area, though, so it might actually be harder to grow where you are than our species.

      Our wolfberry not only will accept wet feet, and not only is salt tolerant, it’s also listed as a drought-tolerant plant. The ones I photographed certainly have been through it: both our droughty period of a couple of years ago, and then completely submerged by Harvey’s flood waters. If I’d been through all that, I certainly wouldn’t look as good as they do.

      As for Texas’s beauty — as lovely as other parts of the country are at this time of year, there’s no reason for envy. (Well… maybe just a little.)

      1. Lycium texanum is pretty and I’d love to get my hands on one or more. Looks to be a great wildlife attractant. I will need to check with the Natural Gardner in Austin. The nursery sells a wide array of natives and maybe they carry it and if not perhaps they might obtain some plants. It likes alkaline soil and that is what I have here. So I think it might just be well suited. Thanks so much for the post and the info that you have provided.

        Well I have to agree that maybe we are a bit envious of the places that have the golden trees and those that glow red and orange but I’ll take out milder climate any day rathter than all the cold and snow of places elsewhere.

        1. I’m with you on snow avoidance. I love snow, and I have great memories of growing up with blizzards and ice skating and sledding and all that. But what appeals at ten years of age, or twenty, or even forty, can bring problems at seventy and eighty. When I think about making a winter trip, the first words that come to mind aren’t “ski chalet.” They’re “snow tires.” Better to stay down here, I think. Besides, there’s not much call for boat varnishers up north in the winter months.

  4. This is all news to me – I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Carolina wolfberry – the first photo is just beautiful, all ready for the Christmas card, right? ;-) I love the way the sepals wrap around from stem to fruit, the way stem to fruit is all so streamlined, but then it’s interrupted by that big color change. I’m glad you’re out there, scouting interesting plants. ;-)

    1. “Streamlined” is a perfect word for the berry. Some vary in size or color, of course, but this red is as Christmas-ready as anything. What interesting is how much of this I’ve seen since writing the post. I think part of the reason is that we’re a little short on other things that would be blooming or setting fruit now, so the bits of color are more obvious.

      The Aransas Wildlife Refuge is a little far for a day trip, but the whooping cranes are coming in, and I’m pondering whether I could make a weekend work. It would be wonderful fun to capture the cranes feeding on these berries.

  5. The wolfberry flowers do remind me of the silver leaf nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium) which has pentagonal purple flowers, The attachment of the stem to the berry is very similar in both plants, though Solanum elaeagnifolium’s berries are yellow or dark umber when ripe. One notable difference between the wolfberry and the silver leaf nightshade, however, is that the latter is “hairy” both on the surface of the leaves and on the stems, and the “hairs” are stiff and have very sharp tips! (I wouldn’t call them spines, as they’re too slender.) Definitely one to handle with garden gloves on. Those little hairs are the devil to find if you get one stuck in your skin!

    1. The silver leaf was the first nightshade I encountered. I found it blooming up in the hill country a few years ago, but it took me a while to figure out that the purple flowers turned into the yellow/gold orbs I was seeing at the coast. It’s one plant that I’ve found in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma — it does get around. And you’re right about its ability to irritate. It’s tough, too. I’ve found it growing through the asphalt along the side of the road, pushing its way right up through the middle, and not even depending on a crack.

      There are two nightshades here that have pretty little white flowers, too. I can’t find the photo right now, but I think it’s black nightshade that’s everywhere in the Galveston cemeteries. I suppose the “black” part of the name came from its black berries. Texas nightshade also has white flowers, but the berries are red.

    1. Isn’t it fun to get a glimpse of each others’ worlds? I’m glad you like the fauna, too. When it comes time to post “orange,” I’m going all fauna!

      I think this is one of the best reds I’ve ever seen. Some berries do tend to be more orange-ish, when they’re young, and old ones can get a little purple, but this is just perfect. I wish they’d stay for Christmas.

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