Whooping Crane Candy

A ready-to-eat wolfberry

Carolina wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum), a low-growing plant with somewhat succulent leaves, grows from North Carolina south through Florida, then west into California and Mexico. Along the Texas coast, it thrives beautifully, thanks to a tolerance for salt, drought, and standing water.

Although a member of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, wolfberry has a four-lobed corolla rather than the five lobes common to most Solanaceae. Some sources say it blooms in April and May; other extend the bloom period from May until October. However, these photos were taken in late November, after some near-freezing temperatures, and even now, moving well into December, wolfberry is blooming and forming new fruits.

A ripening wolfberry, dusted with sand

Typically, the greatest number of fruits are available in October and November: the precise time that migrating whooping cranes begin to arrive on the Texas coast. The bulk of the cranes’ winter diet is comprised of blue crabs, but wolfberries can provide as much as one-quarter to one-half of the crane’s energy needs in early winter.

Often called Christmas berry because of its color, wolfberry also is known as whooping crane candy. Like kids at a Christmas candy bowl, the whoopers can’t seem to get enough of the treat: lucky for them it’s as nourishing as it is tasty.

Humans, too, have made use of the fruit, which is said to have a tomato-like flavor; Native Americans consumed it either raw or dried.

As the plants’ flowers begin to fade prior to the berries’ appearance, they change color, turning a light, pinkish-salmon before their petals become increasingly translucent.

Shading from lavender to a rich, deep purple, their flowers often can be found among stands of silverleaf nightshade: another member of the Solanaceae whose purple blooms linger well into fall.

While flowering, the plants provide pollen and nectar to a variety of bees, flies, and butterflies. At a time of year when winter is beginning to bring a certain dreariness to the landscape, the flowers and fruits of the wolfberry are a welcome and dependable source of color and food.

Comments always are welcome.


43 thoughts on “Whooping Crane Candy

    1. I still remember the day I first saw these berries. I had no idea what they were, and even after I found the flowers, it took me a while to realize they belonged together. Learning about nature’s a little like a jigsaw puzzle. Even when the pieces are all there, it’s not always obvious how they fit.

  1. That’s a good overview from flower to fruit—and what a rich red the ripe one has. A tomato-like taste for the fruit makes sense, given that tomatoes are in the same botanical family. If Carolina wolfberry grew in the center of the state, I’d be out photographing it too.

    1. It is a beautiful fruit, isn’t it? The ones I see tend to be larger than the 1/4″ mentioned on the Wildflower Center page. I’d say 1/2″ is typical, but sometimes they’re even a bit larger, which really helps to show off that color and shine.

      These were on mud flats — wet, but accessible — but I’ve seen them growing half-submerged along the edges of sloughs and ponds. I’ve even found them along ditches and bayous here. Wherever there are good, wet conditions, they seem willing to take root.

  2. Lovely, and I immediately thought, ‘Nightshade/Eggplant…’ as I scrolled down the page. Our planet has so many amazing variants, and it’s always comforting to see ‘cousins’ of favorite species.

    I wrote a long comment last week on one of your posts then x’d the page off by accident while at home. Ugh! Haven’t had the opportunity to reconstruct my thoughts!

    Today I was using the internet at the mall when this post came in, and the ‘public wifi’ security would not allow your page to open. It mentioned that it’s a ‘new site’ …
    Now that I’m half an hour from home at the final internet op, the page loaded with zero problems!

    Heading home; see you online sometime next week!

    1. I really had hoped to find a spot where the yellow fruits of the silverleaf nightshade were intermingled with these orange and red fruits: what a gorgeous image that would be. No luck yet, but their season isn’t over.

      I’m glad the page opened for you. There are mysteries galore when it comes to this wonderful internet of ours; I’m always happy when one resolves on its own. I smiled a rueful smile at your loss of a comment, but only because I’ve done the same. Far too often, I begin a comment, wander off for one reason or another, and then, when I come back to finish it, get the dreaded “comment cannot be posted” message. I’ve found the workaround; now my goal is to revise my work habits so I don’t have to use it!

      A friend just passed on the link to the various Cornell live bird cams, and I’ve been watching the one at El Valle de Antón, Panama. The most recent video snippet they featured included a variegated squirrel and two spot-crowned barbets. I’m just sure they’ve been featured on your blog, but I need to check when I read your latest again. At night, the sounds are remarkably like the Liberian bush.

      Happy week!

      1. Ah yes, the work around – ways to outsmart internet frustrations! Because I load pages and read them offline, I often reply at that time – then send them when back online… Except first is a ‘copy’ then refresh… I wish WP could tweak that so it did not need to be refreshed – if so, I’d have fifty pages open at once instead of fewer, and then the computer would probably crash and die!

        1. Well, if there’s anything we don’t want, it’s you with a dead computer! My most recent discovery isn’t really a workaround, but it’s nice to know. As you probably know, the NY Times and Washington Post allow a limited number of free pages each month. Slow as I am, I just figured out that I can double my free pages by using both my PC and my iPad. I’m sure they keep track of things through IP addresses, so they don’t know I’m behind both. Nice.

    1. You’ve probably consumed a good number of non-poisonous members of the family, Curt: tomato, tomatillo (recently, I suspect!), eggplant, peppers, and potatoes. One reason acceptance of the tomato was so slow was its resemblance to poisonous members of the family. A little caution’s always good.

      I so enjoy finding insects on flowers. I see many more of the tiny ones these days, and this one certainly qualified. The flower was about 3/4″ across, and the insect (which I think is a hoverfly rather than a bee) was about half that. I love my macro lens, even if I’m still far from mastering it — it opens up worlds I’d never seen.

      1. I knew about tomatoes and potatoes. Didn’t realize that eggplants and peppers were part of the clan.
        More and more of my flowers end up with insects. I used to avoid them, thinking they somehow took away from the flower. No longer. And I agree totally with the concept that our cameras help us see nature in a different way. That’s a new concept for me as well, although not nearly as new as the bugs on flowers. I used to think that cameras took away from our enjoyment of nature. My dad, who spent a lot of time photographing nature, was always disgusted that I didn’t carry a camera to capture the wild and beautiful country I was often traveling through. –Curt

  3. Once again, I learn something new! I’ve never heard of wolfberries. What an interesting name. They’re awfully pretty and anything that can keep the cranes going is good by me!

    1. Even if you’ve missed knowing these wolfberries, I wouldn’t be surprised if you know their Chinese cousin: also called wolfberries, or goji berries. The goji berries have been used in Asian cuisine and as health supplements for some time. Whether the goji berry lives up to the hype, I can’t say, but the American wolfberry certainly does well for the cranes.

  4. They sound surprisingly attractive and your photos of them excellent. I especially like the last image with the wasp or hoverfly (or whatever it is).

    I’ve often heard of wolfberries in my books of homesteading and living in the wilderness in the States (of America). I’m one of those unusual people who reads more about the rest of the world’s cultures and wilderness areas than their own, and having studied Herbal Medicine back in the 1990s also includes a tiny bit of the indigenous peoples and their use of wild plants in China and America.

    I just wish I could remember all I read (having intermittent Brain Fog and memory issues now) :)

    1. The last photo shows a hoverfly: very small, and very busy.

      There’s a native Chinese wolfberry in the same family that’s known as the goji berry, and it’s often used in Asian cuisine and as an anti-inflammatory. Our native wolfberry also can be eaten fresh or dried. There’s an interesting article about it here that you might enjoy.

      I looked to see what I could find about the role of wolfberries in early Texas settlers’ diets, but all I could find was that Native Americans favored them. Like the goji berry, our wolfberry is a rich source of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as flavanoids. I also found a note that they are a fairly good source of essential fatty acids. I can’t judge that, but it would be unusual for a fruit. I think I’m going to have to try one the next time I find them.

      1. I was a big fan of Goji berries and bought them (dried) all the time when I was still working and had an income, but they are not cheap, especially now when I have a limited small pension and paying rent. They are so yummy that I can’t stop at eating a few spoonfuls – I end up eating the whole bagful.
        The same with Goldenberries we get her in the dried version. Can’t remember whether they’re $45 or $65 per kilo. A big scoop full can be a very, very expensive treat. Once again they are so delicious, but no matter how hard I try, I end up eating the whole bag full in one sitting.
        That’s the trouble with ‘treats’ these days. They are………….TREATS :) (and rare).

        1. Clearly, I’m going to have to try goji berries. The good news is that my preferred grocery stocks them in their bulk foods section, so you can purchase as many or as few as you want, and try out something new without ending up with an entire package of something you don’t like. I do know what you mean about the enticing nature of certain treats. For me, it’s dried cherries. When I buy some to put in muffins or a poultry dish, I have to fight the inevitable temptation to nibble on them until they’re gone.

    1. It’s tough in several ways. Those semi-succulent leaves help it out during drought, and the thorns on the branches provide some protection. It was one of the first plants to come back in areas flooded by Hurricane Harvey, and now I’ve seen it shaking off a near-freeze like nothing happened. As you might imagine, a mower isn’t going to do much damage to it, either. It may come back shorter, but it comes back.

    1. I don’t know about the blue crabs, but a lot of people have adopted the Chinese version of these wolfberries: the goji berry also is called the wolfberry, and it’s a family member.

      It certainly is on the list of fashionable foods these days. It must be, since you can order in bulk from Amazon, Ebay, Walmart, and so on: ten pounds of organic berries for only $159.95! Get ’em while they’re hot! Apparently they’ll not only slim you down, they’ll cure cancer, reduce blood pressure, raise self-esteem, and possibly end male-pattern baldness. You never try, you never know.

  5. Whooper candy. I love it. Beautiful rich color to the berry. Almost looks like a tomato. The nightshade family ranges from tasty (tomatoes) to deadly. Glad there’s something in it for the whoopers.

    1. The color of the berry can be gorgeous, especially when they’re growing in the right conditions: i.e., no drought, or plenty of sunshine.

      There’s no question (at least in my mind) that most animals have something they favor as a treat: squirrels like pecans, deer like camellias, raccoons like Pepperridge Farm cookies (or anything else they can get their hands on). When I have time, I’d love to see if anyone has explored the way the wolfberry develops in conjunction with the whooper migration. Is it coincidence, or something more? I really don’t have a clue, but I think it’s fascinating. It’s the chicken-and-egg conundrum, salt marsh version.

  6. Your photos and descriptions as so very comprehensive, I’m sure I’d recognise one now if I happened to visit your neck of the woods. That hoverfly and flower is gorgeous! Of course, Australia has many forms of the Nightshade group, most of which are lethal to humans, but the educated indigenous people know which ones to browse on. It seems to be similar to fungi – correct identification is essential to good living!

    1. While the Solanaceae often is called the nightshade family, it’s also called the potato family. It gets confusing, because the nightshades like silverleaf nightshade belong to the genus Solanum, and this plant is in the genus Lycium, which includes a variety of desert thorns, buckthorns, box thorns, and squawthorn. Another name for this wolfberry is Christmas thorn.

      It does get confusing, especially since veggies like the tomato belong in the genus Solanum — along with some of those poisonous nightshades — but Belladonna, the deadly nightshade, belongs in the genus Atropa. I don’t try to figure it out; I just try to sort it out!

      I was surprised to learn that the tubers of the silverleaf nightshade have been used medicinally, and even as food. But, as you point out, it takes people who know what they’re doing to prepare them properly. I’d never try it, that’s for sure.

  7. Thank you for demystifying the goji berry. I haven’t tried them but I have wondered about them. Your photos capture the attractiveness of all parts of the wolfberry plant. I can see how the cranes would be tempted to wolf down the wolfberries.

    1. Although the goji berries have been known in Asia for ages, they seem to have become a bit of a food fad here, thanks in part to PR efforts by people like Oprah. I confess I’ve heard about them for some time without having a clue what they were; I usually see them when I stop to pick up dried cherries or cranberries. The next time I’m in the store, I’ll get some, just out of curiosity.

      If I manage to get down to the refuge where the cranes overwinter, I’ll try for some photos of them nibbling on wolfberries. I probably don’t have the lens for such a project, but there’s always a chance.

  8. The Carolina Wolfberry is an interesting plant and I had no idea that the whooping cranes eat the fruit during their winter stay in Texas. Do any whoopers inhabit at or stray to your area. I think they winter at Aransas Pass area at the wildlife sanctuary/ies that are further down the coast. I have always wanted to see them up close but at this point in my life that is likely not going happen. The photos are all very nice and I do enjoy them.

    1. The whooping cranes do overwinter at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge. I’ve seen them here twice: once, I saw a single one at a local bayou, and once I saw two flying overhead. In both cases, they clearly weren’t staying; they just were passing through.

      I was surprised to learn that cranes eat the wolfberries, too. I’ve looked, but haven’t found any information about other birds that eat them. It also surprised me to learn that the berries contain a small amount of fatty acids, as well as vitamins and minerals. I think that would make them an especially valuable post-migration source of energy.

      From what I’ve heard, seeing the cranes up close can be as iffy as trying to get to Lost Maples on the right day. Some friends have made the trek and took the boat that goes out into the refuge. Some got decent photos, and some never saw the cranes as any more than a white speck in the distance. So it goes.

  9. I don’t recall ever seeing one of these plants, Linda — thank you for educating me today. It’s nice when a plant has so many color options throughout the year. The red is pretty, but the purple is so royal! Have you ever tasted one? Somehow, I thought nightshade was poisonous. Perhaps I should look that up.

    1. Although they’re pretty common in southern coastal areas, I saw them listed as “present but rare” in the area between Pascagoula and Mobile Bay, so it makes sense that you haven’t seen them. Those were the only areas in Mississippi and Alabama where they’re recorded.

      I haven’t tasted one, but it’s on my to-do list. Now that I know they aren’t poisonous, and now that I’m sure of the plant, I’m willing to give it a go.

      With these plants, what’s poisonous and what’s not can be confusing, because of the way they’re named. Think of it as a family tree, of sorts.The family is Solanaceae. Sometimes it’s called the nightshade family, but it’s also called the potato family. There are many genera in the family, like Solanum, Lycium, and Atropa.

      The genus Solanum contain poisonous plants like silverleaf nightshade, but tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes also belong in the group.

      The wolfberry is in the genus Lycium, which includes desert thorns, box thorns, and buck thorns. Another name for wolfberry is Christmas thorn — and it is edible.

      But just to make things interesting, Belladonna, famous as the really, truly deadly nightshade, belongs in the genus Atropa.

      As I said to Vicki in another comment, at this point I don’t try to figure out the whys and wherefores. I just try to sort it out! Thank goodness we don’t have to understand all of this to enjoy their beauty!

    1. I was pleased to find the fading flowers this year. It’s the first time I’ve seen them, or the ripening, orange fruit. Once I realized I had every stage, I thought it would be fun to work backwards through them.

    1. Do they have goji berries in your shops? I suspect they do. The goji also is called wolfberry, and it’s the fruit of either Lycium barbarum or Lycium chinense, two species of boxthorn that also are in the nightshade family and are closely related to our wolfberry. Apparently the taste is very much the same, too. I’ve never tried either goji or wolf berries, but it’s on my to-do list.

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