Mystery Tree

Note small pink flowers.

Always on the lookout for new or unusual flora and fauna here at the museum, Ranger Martha spotted a small tree or shrub growing along the path across from the Farmyard. What caught her eye were the numerous pink buds and flowers (about 1”) on the plant. Not knowing what the plant was she took several photos and started asking questions.

Martha showed the photos to me. I was of little help, even after examining the plant in person. It seemed, though, that it was some sort of cherry or plum.

There are several plums and cherries that bloom early in our area, although their blooms are typically white, and January is early even for those trees.

It was a spindly little tree. The tree was growing amongst hollies, sweetgum and other trees and shrubs so it was not given enough room to spread as it would in a more open situation. It would be shaded out for most of the growing season.

Close of the flowers.

It was time to ask for help. When I’m stumped as to the identity of a plant, or insect for that matter, I go to Richard Stickney, Lead Conservatory Specialist at the Butterfly House. After I emailed Richard with Ranger Martha’s attached photo, he immediately came back to me with the answer, Japanese apricot (Prunus mume), or Chinese plum. He told me that there are Japanese apricots planted at Duke Gardens, Duke University. Duke Gardens is no more than 3 miles distance as the bird flies.

Prunus mume is native to China where it grows wild in sparse forests, forested slopes, beside streams, and rocky hillsides. But, it’s been cultivated for some 1500 years. It’s fruit is used in wine, juices, sauces and other foods, drinks, and condiments.

So, how did our little tree end up here at the Museum of Life and Science. Richard suggested to me, and I agree, that a bird (or birds) ate the fruit of the Duke Garden trees (seeds and all), flew to our location where it perched in a tree above the spot where the tree now grows and defecated, seeds intact. The tree was planted. Many seeds are transported in this way, in the gut of birds. Hawthornes, crab apple, cherry, red cedar and many other trees have fruit that birds consume, ultimately delivering their seeds to remote locations via their seed-laced feces.

While I was doing my questioning, Ranger Martha was likewise engaged. It turns out, Ranger Robert has Japanese apricot trees in his yard. He knew immediately what the tree was. He also suggested that Prunus mume was represented at Duke Gardens.

Whether or not our little tree came from seeds of trees at Duke Gardens we may never know for sure, there may be other Japanese apricots growing closer still in some of the suburban yards which surround the museum. But, three miles is not a long flight for a bird. Nor is it a long walk for a gray fox or raccoon, both of which would enjoy the fruit of the Japanese apricot, though the trip would be more hazardous for a flightless mammal. There are two major highways and numerous local streets to navigate. But it’s possible.

Chinese plum, Japanese apricot, or Prunus mume.

Wherever the tree came from or how it got here, it’s here and can be seen on the north side of the path across from the Farmyard. Look for the delicate pink flowers.

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