Gopher Apples: Not Just For Tortoises Anymore

by Green Deane

in Edible Raw, Fruits/Berries, Plants

Gopher Apples are closely related to coco plums.

If you like the taste of pink bubble gum, you’ll like gopher apples, if you can find them

Why can’t you find them? Because nearly every woodland creature likes them as well, from tortoise to teenager. I identified the plant some 15 years before I saw a good crop of fruit. They fly off the leafy shelves, as it were

Blossoms are small and green

In all fairness, authors tend to be divided about the flavor and fragrance of the gopher apples. Some say they are odorless and flavorless. Other say they smell like a new, plastic shower curtain. To me, and other foragers, they taste just like old fashion, pink, baseball bubble gum, and have sweet and fragrant. There is also a hint of granola flavor in there as well. I cannot explain the difference in perceptions. It either has to be a plant problem or a taste issue, or both. The texture, however, is quite different from bubble gum. The dirty white or pink ripe fruit is very soft with a resistance similar to watery custard. You really can’t carry them in your pocket too far. It has one large seed about an inch long that has been likened to an olive pit which I think is stretching the definition a little. You’ll find gopher apples growing from Florida north to South Carolina and west to Louisiana. Here in central Florida they are common site on the Seminole bike trail in Longwood and Lake Mary. In Melbourne they are directly behind (south) the doggie showers at the dog park inside Wickham Park.

The plant, scientifically, is called Licania Michauxii, (lye-KAY-nee-uh miss-SHOW-ee-eye) and was named for the French botanist André Michaux, who might be that fellow to the right. The problem is father and son had similar names and both were botanists. Writers get them mixed up often. An early photograph identified as the elder Michaux has to be the son because the elder Michaux died 20 years before photography. The painting at the right could be the Younger or the Older. Judging by the handwriting my guess is it is the younger Michaux when he was younger. If you want to see him when he was older read my Maple Manna article. Anyway, the elder Michaux, personal botanist to King Louis XVI, traveled to the United States in the late 1700’s and described this plant in his journal (good thing is wasn’t witch hazel or we’d have “witch michauxii” not too easy to say.)

Ripe Gopher Apples In Melbourne, FL.

Licania is almost an anagram of what the Amazon natives called the plant family, Calignia. That is the best guess for where the word “licania” came from. Many calignia/licania are timber trees. The gopher apple, however, resembles an oak seedling, rarely more than a foot high. The leaves are glossy, evergreen, 2-4 inches long,  narrow, alternating with rounded tips and easy-to-see veining. They have tiny clusters of yellow-green flowers in early summer. Usually they grow in a colony.

It’s a tough, wiry plant that spreads well even in poor soil but it is nearly impossible to transplant. If someone is selling well-established specimens in pots, buy ’em. Some say propagation is by seed, others say by rootings. Take your pick. I’m currently trying seeds, and they never grow from seeds that have dried out. Once established they can even survive a burn. A member of the greater Coco Plum family, chrysobalanaceae ( which is Greek for golden apple) the family has plants that are used for fruit and oils for candle making. Indeed, except for its small stature the Gopher Apple bears a resemlance to the white Coco Plum and one can taste a similarity to coco plum fruit

Gopher Tortoise, Gopherus Polyphemus, photo by B.A. Bowen

And yes, the gopher tortoise, Gopherus Polyphemus, which is becoming extinct, really likes them. Then again, if the tortoise does become extinct, then all the more gopher apples for the rest of us. I can see why the tortoise likes them; nice and low and tasty, hence the moniker. By the way, the tortoise’s name is Latinized English for a small burrowing rodent, the pocket gopher. Polyphemus was the name of the cave-dwelling giant in The Odyssey, a reference to ugly strength.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: A foot tall, oblanceolate leaves, glossy, evergreen, woody, 2-4 inches long, alternating, long and narrow, with rounded tips and easy-to-see veining, yellow-green five-petal flowers in tiny clusters early summer.

TIME OF YEAR: Fruits in fall but you have to watch  them and be quick or the forest denizens will get them

ENVIRONEMENT: Is native to dry sandy habitats, xeric sites, oak hammocks, sand hills, longleaf pine/turkey oak sand hills, sandy pine flatwoods, scrub, barrens, dunes and similar habitats. It is very fire resistant.

METHOD OF PREPARATION:  Out of hand as they come off the bush, don’t eat the seed. (I don’t know why they say son’t eat the seed as coco plum seeds are edible. I might have to experiment.)

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacob September 16, 2013 at 21:35

A really good place to find gopher apples in pensacola is either the main power lines of the bike trails on the University of west lorida bike trails or a wet prairie called garcon point. I would also like to know of some good sources with decent pictures so I could further my interest in wild edibles.


Chris R. June 30, 2013 at 20:33

Great article. I bought my seedling for a few bucks from Maypop Hill Nursery, based in Norwood, LA, which specializes in hard-to-find native plants. They had a bunch of seedlings (with the seeds still attached to the “trunks”) at the Baton Rouge plant show in March. It seems to like lots of water so far, and has recently started to branch out a bit.


Audrey April 2, 2013 at 08:39

Green, Where exactly on the bike trail can I see these? My son has a home he just bought with at least three big gophers turtles and some babies. He is trying to identify the gopher apples to keep from mowing over them. We just found paw paws this week and want to identify the gopher apples before the renovations in the yard proceed. Thanks so much for any info and are there other beneficial plants he should be watching for on his sandy soiled, pine and scrub oak property?


Green Deane April 5, 2013 at 09:00

If you mean the Seminole bike trail…. head south from panera’s in Lake Mary. Past the apartments. Then you go up hill a little and wend around. You pass a park bench on your left then the trail straightens out for about 3/4 of a mile and heads down hill. On you left after about 500 feet there is a setback brick wall. All along the trail there just a few feet off onyour left will be plants that look like young live oaks, about a foot high. Dat’s them.


cindy November 10, 2012 at 12:04

do you know who sells these trees so i can get one.
thank you


Green Deane November 12, 2012 at 21:18

They are occassionaly found in native nurseries but they are hard to grow and transplant.


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