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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Saturday - March 08, 2008

From: Houston, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Plant Identification
Title: Identification of maypop north of Houston
Answered by: Barbara Medford and Joe Marcus

QUESTION:

I have some land in the country an hour north of Houston, Texas. There is a wild plant which grows in clusters from 10' to 20' wide. These plants grow about 6" or 12" apart.They are approx. one foot high. They grow in shady damp areas, not swampy. They have a single stem with, I believe, 3 or 4 big leaves at the top, umbrella shaped. About 10" to 12" across. They are green. They do not flower. They produce a small bulb under the leaves on the stem. They sprout up in late February. An old lady in the area called them May-Pops. She said you could eat the bulb. Any idea of the name or family? I haven't seen these plants anywhere else.

ANSWER:

The first plant that comes to mind, especially given your location, is that it might be Passiflora incarnata (purple passionflower). A common name sometimes given to this plant is "maypop." Follow the link to read the information on it in our Native Plant Database and look at the pictures. Please read this previous Mr. Smarty Plants answer on the passionflower, which will give you a little more information on it. And, here is a page of images of the passionflower, with pictures of the fruit, leaves, etc. One problem with that identification is that you say these plants on your land do not flower; the Passiflora incarnata flowers profusely from April to September, and the plant can be quite aggressive, growing over small trees and spreading on the ground by tendrils.

Another possibility is the Air Potato, or Dioscorea bulbifera, a non-native of North America, which also has a small fruit or tuber-like growth, and is grown in West Africa for food and medicinal purposes. They were imported to Florida in about 1905 as an ornamental crop, but have become an invasive pest there. Here is a page of pictures of the Air Potato, so you can compare it to your plant. It does also flower, but flowers are small and yellowish and might have gone unnoticed. It is a perennial vine with broad leaves and two types of storage organs. The plant forms bulbils in the leaf axils of the twining stems, and tubers beneath the ground. Uncultivated plants, such as those growing wild, can be poisonous, so we would suggest you don't try any of the fruit of your plant until you are certain what it is.

The problem with both of these identifications is that both the passionflower and the air potato are vines with herbaceous stems; your description sounds more like a woody plant. If we haven't hit the nail on the head, please send us a digital picture and we'll take another stab at it. There are instructions on how to do this in the lower right-hand corner of the "Ask Mr. Smarty Plants" page.


Passiflora incarnata

Passiflora incarnata

Passiflora incarnata

 

 

 

 

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