2006-05-05 / Beauty in the Backyard

The Original Mystery Plant

Dr. John Nelson

Photo by John Nelson
Photo by John Nelson


Here's a flower that looks like a small explosion. In this photo, you are looking at a blossom head-on. There are 5-8 fleshy sepal lobes and plenty of stamens remaining in the flower. It used to have a number of red-orange, floppy petals, but these have all fallen away. Before long, this flower will be producing a fruit.

If all goes well, the fruit will be globose, the size of a baseball (or perhaps even a softball), and covered with a smooth, leathery, orange-red skin. Botanists refer to this fruit as a special kind of berry, and it is tightly filled with plenty of seeds, maybe a couple hundred or so. Each seed will be packed into a number of white, pithy chambers, and at maturity each seed will be enclosed in a ruby-red, juice-filled outer layer. The refreshing juice is deliciously sweet and sour and filled with vitamins.

Ripe seeds are often eaten as a delicacy. It's a bit of a chore to chew off the delicious, outer juicy layer...but some connoisseurs just chew up the whole thing, seed and all. Otherwise, you can sometimes find its juice bottled in specialty grocery stores. And, of course, there is sweet, syrupy grenadine which is derived from the juice.

Photo by Linda Lee
Photo by Linda Lee The mystery plant is a shrub or small tree native to the Mediterranean and southern Asia. It has been known since antiquity and is prominently featured in plenty of ancient stories and mythology. The ancient Greeks loved this plant and grew it commonly as an ornamental. Of course, they were also interested in its juice as were the Romans somewhat later.

This is a plant that is easy to grow in the warmer parts of the US. The shrubs, which are sometimes a bit spiny, feature shiny, dark green leaves, sharp- pointed at the tips. When the plants are firmly established in the garden, they may produce their marvelous fruits all summer long. This species especially appreciates long, hot summers, and it likes it dry.

You may not recognize the flower at all. Ripe fruits will be topped with the remnants of the fleshy calyx which resembles a crown. These fruits are quite decorative, and for those who are reluctant to eat the seeds, the fruits look great piled into a bowl. The French word for one of these fruits is grenade, and this botanical structure has provided inspiration for the use of the word for the explosive hand grenade.

A big, ripe fruit, if dropped on the floor, will sometimes burst into a number of pieces, scattering its seeds. The fruit resembles a swollen red apple, and when filled with ripe seeds, allows for the plant's French common name, which means seedy apple.

Answer to last week's mystery plant

Bull thistle, Cirsium horridulum

Dr. John Nelson is the curator of the USC Herbarium.

To learn more about the Herbarium, call him at

777-8196. His department also offers free plant identification.


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