Never Say Never

New growth emerging from freeze-damaged branches

Despite its name, the Mexican Olive, or Anacahuita, doesn’t produce true olives. A member of the Borage family, Cordia boissieri is more closely related to flowers such as Comfrey, Heliotrope, and Forget-Me-Not. 

Butterflies and hummingbirds frequent the blooms, while the fleshy fruits — which do resemble an olive in shape and color — are palatable to birds, deer, and cattle. Don’t add one to your martini or tapenade, though; the fruits’ slight toxicity makes them unfit for human consumption.

Native to only a few counties in far south Texas and to portions of northeastern Mexico, the plant rarely exceeds a height of twenty feet. It tends toward shrubbiness, but can be pruned to become more tree-like. No matter its shape, it blooms through most of the year with showy, trumpet-shaped flowers that glow against its dark leaves.

Pest and disease free, Texas olive’s greatest downside is its dislike of cold weather. In the normally frost-free region of south Texas, Mexican olive thrives, but survival in areas like Austin and San Antonio is less certain. At that northern limit of its range, the trees often are smaller, and deciduous or evergreen depending on the weather.

After Texas’s state-wide freeze last February, the single specimen tree at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge seemed to have succumbed to the harsh conditions; its leafless branches suggested it never would survive. Then, I noticed a few leaves, followed by small but perfectly formed buds. In time, normally-sized flowers once again bloomed: delighting my human eyes as well as the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds that find it so appealing.


Comments always are welcome.

52 thoughts on “Never Say Never

  1. Thanks for this, Linda. There is a popular misconception that hummingbirds will eschew white flowers, a far too broad generalization, and here we are provided with proof. No doubt the flower produces sufficient nectar to justify the hummingbird’s attention,

    1. I usually see hummingbirds feeding at Turk’s Cap or other brightly colored, tubular flowers, but I once was lucky enough to see a pair hovering around the large Mexican Olive in the Rockport cemetery. The trees in Rockport and at the refuge are the only ones I’ve come across, but I’m sure if I got just a little farther down the coast they’d be more common.

    1. I suspect the marketing of hummingbird feeders has shaped our view of what the birds prefer. All that red plastic — and erroneous suggestions that the sugar water we use in feeders has to be colored red — makes it easy to assume that only red flowers will do. Not so! William Morris might have liked this flower for one of his designs; it’s both beautiful and useful.

  2. I have had some plants come back from the freeze that I never expected to survive and others totally died. And yes, hummingbirds will feed from all flowers that have good nectar. My winter hummers will eat anything.

    1. In terms of our plants, patience has been a virtue. Following the freeze, the garden guys I occasionally listen to kept saying for weeks, “It’s too soon to prune.” They were right. It’s becoming clearer now which are going to come back and which are gone for good, but there still are some surprises.

  3. The flower in your second picture does seems to glow in comparison to the dark elements below it. Your final picture couldn’t help reminding me of a white prickly poppy, thanks to the crinkled floral whiteness. You’ve got me wondering whether the Mexican olive tree at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center survived February’s freeze.

    1. The resemblance to a white prickly poppy is especially marked in that photo. Given my affection for the poppy, you can imagine how pleased I was to discover this species. One thing I didn’t mention in the post is the fuzziness of the leaves and buds. I saw several descriptions of the plant as drought tolerant, and generally speaking that’s one feature that helps plants conserve moisture.

        1. A slight revision of the old bit of doggerel is called for:

          “Fuzzy Wuzzy had some hair;
          Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t bare.
          Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fussy, wuz he?”

  4. Thanks for this info, Linda. I wish they’d grow here in the Hill Country, but from what you write, I don’t believe that. They’d make a nice addition to our garden, though.
    Have a great week,

    1. I’m afraid it wouldn’t do in your location. There’s one that grows at a corner of the Alamo, but a San Antonio gardening site had this bit of advice for readers:

      “An unwatered Mexican olive shades the front corner of the Alamo in San Antonio, providing a measure of the capabilities of this subtropical tree, and an informal yardstick of recent winter weather. Even at this protected location, receiving the reflected heat of a south-facing stone wall in winter, it froze to the ground twice in the 1980’s – a useful reminder especially for anyone thinking of using it north of San Antonio.”

  5. This one certainly wouldn’t like a Midwestern winter! I find it rather pretty though — its flower is textured much like a really old person’s skin, isn’t it?

    1. Some people do describe the petals as being like crepe paper, and after all — we know what ‘crepe-y skin’ looks like. I really like the texture. I think it adds a lot to a white flower when there’s that bit of extra interest. Smooth white flowers are pretty, but I think they’re much harder (and less satisfying) to photograph.

  6. I love the flower portraits. These flowers can be overlooked and not appreciated so easily.

    We had a row of these olives at the last house – far north of here and on the north side of the house. I loved their grey-ish tinge and their absolutely enchanting fragrance. Always loaded with bees. Never thought of pruning it into a tree – they do have wild swooping branches ( which I sadly planned as the plants get really wide and sprawlingly tall.) While the plants seemed to thrive when trimmed, ours never suffered from freezes…it would have been easier to trim them if they had!

    As you say, never say never to a planet if for some reason it is happy where it is. (Surprisingly, a couple of hibiscus bushes and all the bougainvilleas have decided to stretch out and live after all from their roots. You just have to smile at those who are determined.)

    1. One of my friends has had the same experience. After being certain her bougainvilleas were dead as the proverbial doornail, they proved her wrong. Her Cenizo (Texas sage) has re-emerged and is flourishing, and her Duranta’s never looked so good. You must be one of the few who’s managed to keep Mexican olive. The farthest-north survivor I know of is planted at the Alamo. It’s been there for years, has frozen to the ground a few times, but made it this year, too.

    1. In this case, the fruits look so much like unripe olives, both in size and color, it’s easy to understand. True olives aren’t native anywhere in the state, and trying to grow them can be more than iffy, so it might be that immigrants from other places gave them the name.

  7. The flower in your second really pops against the darker background and I love the texture of the petals in the third.

    I have an Adenium obesum, aka Desert Rose, among my desert plant collection that had a similar reaction to your Mexican Olive. One cold night late this past Spring and I almost gave it up for dead. But the leaves have come back although with some frost bite and my hope is that next year it returns to its old self with rich red flowers.

    1. Those white petals are delightful. Steve pointed out their resemblance to the white prickly poppy, which happens to be one of my favorite native flowers.

      Your desert rose is new to me; the flowers are striking. The first thing that came to mind when I read ‘desert rose’ was the famous Franciscan china pattern. Of course, there’s that great song that paired Sting and Cheb Mami, too.

  8. So glad that one survived and perhaps some volunteers will emerge in the next year or two. They have lovely flowers. I’d considered buying a Mexican Olive in the past and the City of Austin’s Grow Green program lists it as a desired plant for the region. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any growing in gardens; I wonder how they fared after February’s storm?

    1. It surprises me that Mexican Olive’s recommended for your area. I hope they added some caveats. The San Antonio gardening sites I looked at take a “yes, but” stance toward it, although conditions in Austin might be more favorable, especially where there’s plenty of shelter and concrete to hold a bit of warmth. When I looked at the iNaturalist map, I found three observations from Austin — and I found this particular tree, all by its lonesome down at the refuge.

  9. We planted one when we moved in here but it didn’t survive the first winter. We had seen a gorgeous specimen at the Antique Rose Emporium in Independence but alas, it was too much work to keep alive for us. Glad one has rebounded.

    1. I’ve watched friends try to deal with everything from citrus to plumeria over the years, and it can take some effort to keep them alive even through a ‘normal’ winter. When I saw one of these up near Dallas on the iNaturalist map, I had to grin. That one either has a very special location or an obsessive owner — or both.

    1. That it is. It’s been quite interesting watching the various plants recover. This one stands in the open with no protection whatsoever; it was quite a surprise to see it putting on new growth.

    1. Resilient, and lucky. I suspect that, had it been fifty miles farther north, it wouldn’t have made it. I can’t remember now exactly what the temperature spread was between its location and those somewhat more inland, but even three or four degrees apparently can make a difference in those conditions.

      Some of my favorite photos are white-against-blue. It’s a lovely combination.

  10. The flowers are beautiful as well as strong. You have got the balance perfectly, especially in the last image, which can be quite a challenge not to blow out those delicate shades of white details.

    1. They are lovely flowers. One reason I enjoy returning to the same spot multiple times is the opportunity to capture processes like these. Of course, things can go in the opposite direction. When I returned to the refuge earlier this year to photograph a sotol bloom against a blue sky, I was too late. The stalk was so long and the bloom so heavy, it snapped itself off; only a broken stump was left. Easy come, easier go, sometimes!

  11. it is such a beautiful little tree. I’ve often though about getting one but I have so many trees on this property and so little sun available for gardening. I could plant it over on the shop property which is devoid of trees. maybe I will.

    1. I did a little reading about the conditions it likes, and one thing everyone seems to agree on is that it doesn’t like wet feet. It especially doesn’t like standing water; good drainage is critical. I can’t remember exactly which portions of your property you’ve mentioned as holding water, but I know there are some wetter areas. Take that into account if you try planting one.

  12. The close up of the flower is quite lovely and beautiful in its pristine whiteness. I had never seen the flower/s nor the foliage of this little tree. I believe that it’s available in the nursery trade but I could be wrong about that.

    1. It is available. When I was looking for some information about the best growing conditions for it, I found it on the Monrovia Nurseries site, and a few others. Of course, some nurseries were more forthcoming than others about its unsuitability for frosty climates. “Buyer beware” certainly applies with this one!

  13. Your final image is a beauty of a beauty. The resilience of plants often surprises me. For example there are the trees which survived the bombing of Hiroshima which still exist to this day. On a smaller scale, ie a much smaller scale, there is the tale of my lemon tree which appeared to die after a snowstorm but suddenly came to life again 4 years later! 3 years after its rebirth, it started to produce lemons.

    1. I’ll have to tell a friend who’s pondering what to do with her lemon and lime trees; they seem to have taken quite a hit in our freeze, but she’s loathe to cut them down. They aren’t hurting anything; a few more months of patience might be called for.

      There are some interesting videos showing wildflowers in Hiroshima prefecture. The same resilience was witnessed after the eruption of Mount St. Helens; wildflower began colonizing the ash-covered hills in a very short time.

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