Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist
Last May I spotted close to the house a small shrub about eight feet tall with unusual flower spikes that I did not recognize. I was quite surprised as I thought I was familiar with most everything close by. Off and on I kept checking it throughout the summer and stayed puzzled. Wildlife photographer Karen Lawrence helped solve the mystery when I noticed this fall small pear shape fruits which made it easy to solve the puzzle – Buffalo Nut. This unique species is found only in the Appalachian Mountains, from Pennsylvania to Alabama. Its scientific name is Pyrularia (pyr-roo-lar-ee-eh) pubera. It is the only genus in the western hemisphere. Pyrus is the genes of pears which the Buffalo Nut fruit resembles. Its apple-green leaves are fuzzy or pubescent underneath. It can get as tall as 14 feet. The inconspicuous small greenish yellow flowers are found on branch tips. The shrub is dioecious meaning the male and female plants are separate. The prefix “di” means two. The female blooms are on 1-inch spikes and the male blooms are 2-inch similar spikes both occurring late spring.
Buffalo Nut is a parasite. It is one of 40,000 species of parasitic flowering plants. Its roots have the ability to penetrate roots of neighboring trees by root structures called haustoria. They locate, surround and penetrate a root of a host tree or shrub or branch as in the case of mistletoe. Buffalo Nut has the ability to produce its own food by photosynthesis thus it is technically classified as hemi-parasitic. Its parasitic habits do not make it all bad. Plant parasites are important in our eco-system by keeping certain species from becoming too dominate. So far at my place I have only found one plant so I am not worried about losing important trees. But there has to be a male plant hiding close by. There are certainly even more but I have not found them yet.
There are seeds in the pear-shaped oily fruit. When germination starts, a tap-root emerges that has lateral branching root structures that travel underground searching for a host. Once connected, the haustoria starts stealing water and nutrients.
The fruits are poisonous if consumed in large quantities. However, bison and elk can tolerate the fruit. It has many names such as Buffalo Nut, Elk Nut, Oil Nut, Mother-in-Law Nut, Rabbit wood, Mountain Coconut, Crazy Nut and Cherokee Salve so named to treat sores. The Cherokee also call it Colic Ball, chewing its seeds causes vomiting which helps with colic.
Our forests here are unique and full of surprises with lots of things to learn. It is fun getting to know your own habitat and to learn what you are living with. We have here in Franklin an informal organization called the Southern Appalachian Plant Society-NC, GA or SAPS. They led small group botanical field trips throughout the year. The sessions are very inexpensive. Check them out on line. I can promise you will have fun, meet new people and learn something. htps://sa[sncga.blogspot.com
Who knows with our expanding Elk population you might find one on your property looking for Elk Nuts as happened to a friend who lives in the Cat Creek area. She looked out of her kitchen widow to find an Elk. We live in a magical place.
Dr. Bob Gilbert, now living in Franklin is co-founder of Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw, Ga.
Karen Lawrence is a professional botanical and wildlife photographer from Franklin.