Florida bitterbush

Picramnia pentandra

Upon visual inspection, you may think of this evergreen tree (up to 20 feet tall) as blushing rather than bitter. Warm, scarlet hues may flush young leaves and adorn new berries. The bitterness trait is realized if almost any part of the small tree is tasted. Picramnia pentandra (the alliterative P’s and abundant vowels bounce off the tongue with practice!) has slim branches embraced by gray bark that support smooth, shiny leaflets with long points. Tiny, green flowers occur at the ends of stems between March and July. The species name, pentandra, refers to the five anthers that occur on male flowers.

Florida bitterbush occurs naturally in Miami-Dade County and is listed as endangered by the state, but additional populations occur in the Caribbean and northern South America. Many of us associate a bitter taste with medicine, and in fact another common name for this tree is ‘doctor-bar.’ Native Caribbean peoples made tonics or teas from this plant to treat various maladies, from colds to parasitic worms. They even combined extracts from bitterbush with another Florida native, snowberry (Chiococca alba), to relieve gas and menstrual pain. Florida bitterbush displayed crimson fruit in the Kapnick Caribbean Garden in early September, and these berries will darken to black through the end of the year.

Author: Andee Naccarato, Department of Education and Conservation, Naples Botanical Garden

Originally published by the News-Press