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By John Nelson
For the Christmas holidays we can have an easy mystery plant. Don’t you think? I think it will be easy, but before we go there, I have a question.
It’s about that fluffy stuff that they put in the bottom of Easter baskets, or in the bottoms of fruit baskets or boxes that you order to be delivered. What is that stuff called? “Shredded paper filler?” Too technical for the holidays. “Excelsior?” Too hard to pronounce. Maybe we can come up with a name for it.
The first time I ever saw that stuff was when I was a little kid, and my Grandma had come from Virginia to spend Christmas with us. She brought into the house a huge cardboard box full of oranges from Florida, and the oranges were nestled securely in a bed of soft, somewhat crinkly shredded paper filler/excelsior/whatever. And, around the edges of the box were these decorative little golden-orange things that looked like tiny, somewhat elongated baby oranges. I was mystified.
Of course, these things are a lot more commonly seen around here these days during the holidays, and indeed, this is a very popular kind of a citrus fruit. All of the citrus fruit species have plenty of things in common, especially regarding the way their flowers are put together, and, of course, their various fruit characteristics.
A citrus fruit is technically, in botany-talk, called a “hesperidium,” which is a special kind of berry, derived from a superior ovary, and which features a coriaceous, glandular exocarp. (Sorry, I started getting carried away.) Simply stated, a citrus fruit is a kind of juicy berry with a leathery peel, the peel usually containing plenty of aromatic oil. It’s the oil of the peel that gives marmalade that special taste.
Our mystery citrus is a native of southeastern Asia, and was introduced into Europe and America during the middle of the 19th century. The plants are evergreen, forming small trees (often very spiny), with beautiful dark green foliage. It is said to be one of the “hardiest” citrus species there is, which means it can stand it pretty cold without any damage.
The rinds of the fruits start out green, of course, but develop into a wonderful gold/orange shade when ripe. The skins are sweet … but the flesh is sour … and that’s mostly what I remember about eating one of these things so long ago. I thought they were basically inedible.
Of course, I’ve matured a bit since then (in most ways), and I’ve developed a taste for some of the things that I used to avoid. This is one of them. Most people only want to use this stuff as a decoration. If you do get some of these from the supermarket, or happen to see some at one of your holiday parties, amaze your friends and family by giving it a try. You have to eat the whole thing, though. Don’t try to peel it! The taste is at once sweet and sour, and a good way to remember the holidays.
Answer: “Kumquat,” (Nagami variety), Fortunella margarita
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, go to www.herbarium.org or call (803) 777-8196 or email email@example.com.