Nature Study: Brasil

A few weeks ago, Jessica and I had taken the kids to the trails out at Hilltop for a nature walk (no journals or object lessons, just a stroll through field and trees to see what was in bloom) and, as always, we found ourselves stumped by plant after plant (this whole botany thing is a long journey!).  Jessica and I tend to spend a whole lot of time saying, “Ooh, I wonder what this is!”

But slowly we’re learning and gaining confidence in our identification skills.  It’s a slow going journey, but by going slow, there’s time to absorb what we’re learning and look for it everywhere we go.  Our newest find (which Jessica already knew and pointed out to me!) is the Brasil, a deciduous tree or shrub that grows well down here.  We found it in abundance out on the local trails so we took the kids this past week for an object lesson.

The Brasil (Condalia hookeri) is also known as the Bluewood Condalia or the Brazilian Bluewood  and is a member of the Buckthorn family.  

The kids observed the leaves and found them to be simple, alternate, glossy, small and bright.  After describing the shape of the leaves (they described them as some being oval and some being spoon shaped), I taught them that in botany, those are called obovate (oval) and spatulate (like a spatula) blades.  The margins of the leaves are smooth to weakly toothed toward the tip.  A fun little fact is that the leaves are host to the Snout Butterfly.  

I also introduced the kids to the botanical term pinnate vein which is present on the leaves of the Brasil.  A pinnate vein is one main vein extending from base to tip with smaller veins branching off.  

The kids quickly noticed the sharp thorns at the tip of each branch.  I had to do a little research of my own to find out exactly what qualifies as a thorn…it’s not as simple as I thought.  Turns out there are basically three botany terms for sharp points on plants: thorns, spikes and prickles.   While each of them is a defense mechanism and each is incredibly sharp and pointed, they are formed in different ways.  Thorns are modified branches; spikes are modified leaves; prickles are an outgrowth from the epidermis.  Those sharp tips on a rose plant are actually prickles while the sharp tips on a cactus are spines.  The sharp tips at the end of the Bluewood Condalia’s branches are thorns.  You can read more about the difference here or here.  

The wood on the Bluewood Condalia appears red but yields a blue dye.  Pioneers used the bark chips to make red ink.  

Of course, our favorite fact about the Brasil is that the berry-like drupes are edible.  They begin as a red fruit but ripen to a blue-black fruit.  They’re sweet and juicy and loved by squirrels, raccoons, opposums and birds (and clearly by Gavin, whose mouth turned a bit blue temporarily from all the fruit he ate!).  We just like to nibble on them, but I’m sure if we were a bit more industrious and could brave all those thorns and collect enough, they’d make a delightful jelly.

The flowers, when present, are small and inconspicuous and almost a light green.

Ironically, after the object lesson (and the fruit tasting), Jessica read Rapunzel to us…it sure made us wonder if, when the prince fell out of the tower, he landed on a Brasil shrub…it’s certainly a possibility.  Please learn from him…be careful around thorny plants!  

I used the books Trees of Texas and Wildflowers and Other Plants of Texas Beaches and Islands in my research.  Both of these top my list of favorites for local plant identification guides.  Even though the pictures in Trees of Texas are black and white, they are so well done that they make identification easy.

**Even though I have researched these plants thoroughly and feel confident in my identification skills of the plants discussed here, you should still always do your own research before teaching your kids and definitely before eating any plant…there are a lot of look-alikes out there and not everything that looks good IS good!  I strongly urge you to find a Master Naturalist or a foraging guide in your area to help you properly identify plants before you do any foraging and please be sure to obey all laws and follow foraging ethics.**

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