Nance in bloom

The nance trees on our property have been in bloom for a couple of months, although they are just now really ablaze with color. All this time I’ve been trying to get a decent picture of an individual flower. This is not it – these are the flower clusters (inflorescences) on the tree.

The nance, Byrsonima crassifolia, is one of the three conspicuous trees in this savanna. It’s often a host for orchids,

and its fruit is used to make juice and to flavor ice cream. Different parts of the plant are used throughout the American tropics for medicinal purposes such as treating snake bites, diarrhea and dysentery, bad coughs, and reducing fever.

I’ve worked through the taxonomy of nance, before, showing that it is in the family Malpighiaceae. But what features of this plant put it in that family, relating it to acerola and about 1300 other species, most of whom are native to the new world?

For on thing they often have reddish hairs.

Not only do we see in this image the reddish hairs, but we see three other characteristics of Malpighiaceae:

  1. simple (not compound) leaves
  2. opposite (rather than alternate) leaves
  3. stipules

The stipules are those small appendages at the base of the leaf stalk. If you read about the stipules that characterize the coffee family (Rubiaceae), you may remember that those were interpetiolar stipules – ones that occur between the bases of the petioles. The stipules of the Malpighiaceae may be either interpetiolar or intrapetiolar stipules – ones that occur at the base of the petioles. Here in Byrsonima, the stipules are intrapetiolar – at the base of the petiole.

The flowers, though, are most distinctive. They occur in clusters either at the ends of stalks or branches (terminal) or at the angle between the leaf stalk and stem (axillary). Nance inflorescences are terminal. The young flowers are yellow and as they age, they turn orange in color.

Each flower within the cluster has

  1. three carpels (female organs)
  2. “several” fertile stamens (male organs)
  3. five petals with clawed bases, commonly fringed or toothed.

Most interesting to me are those clawed, fringed petals. That’s what I’ve been trying to get a picture of. I’ve scanned, taken macros indoors and out, and have had abominable results.

You can get an idea, I think, with this one:

You can certainly see the 5 clawed, fringed petals. The carpels and stamens are there in the center, but you could not prove it by me which are the three carpels and which of the remainder are the stamens.

Byrsonima flowers produce lipids instead of nectar. In the next image you can see the glands that produce this oil. They are located over the sepals. (You can also see those reddish “malpighian” hairs on the flower stalk.)

Bees of the genus Centris obtain both pollen and oil at each visit to the flower. The mixture of oil and pollen is fed to bee larvae. Adult bees feed themselves with nectar from other species of plants.

I’ve gone a little beyond the family characteristics here, once I zeroed in on the flower. So let me just summarize what I now know to look for to recognize the Malpighiaceae family.

  1. reddish hairs
  2. simple, opposite leaves
  3. stipules
  4. flowers with 5 clawed, fringed petals

These should suffice in the field to at least tell me the plant is likely to be a member of the family.

Now what sets the nance tree apart from the other members of the family? I found an excellent description of Byrsonima crassifolia written by Mireya D. Correa A. at the University of Panama and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. My botanical skills are still too naive to pluck the key species features from the description, but much in that document is of interest. All the information in the next two paragraphs is gleaned from that paper.

The nance tree is resistant to fire and therefore has a mode of growth that makes it appear twisted. [I wonder, but haven’t been able to find out, whether this twistedness creates nice little niches for the orchids. I also see more epiphytes on the nance than on other trees in the relatively dry climate of a savanna. Hmm.] It is found in both wet and dry tropical forests but usually grows in barren soils at elevations up to 1500 m. The bark is fissured, gray to dark chocolate color, with lenticels.

It flowers from November through July, primarily from March through June, for approximately 6 weeks. One fruit (drupe) is produced from each flower. They ripen primarily in August and September and are dispersed by birds. Humans harvest the fruits by collecting them from the ground, by hand. Fruits can be made to fall from branches by shaking them or, if the branches are not accessible, by throwing a piece of wood and hitting the branches. The fruits are tightly stuffed into previously cleaned bottles with water and are sold this way.

All this discussion is creating a craving for nance ice cream. I’ve heard it described as tasting walnut-flavored, but I don’t taste it that way. Nance does add a richness to the taste, though. Now I’m going to have to wait until August when nance ice cream will reappear in the stores!

16 thoughts on “Nance in bloom”

  1. Great description of the Nance tree and great pictures! I want to add something about other ways the local Panamanians use the fruit of the Nance.

    Even though the Nance ice cream is very nummy, locals use the fruit to make chicha and pesada de nance. Chicha is a general term for a drink made from natural fruit and pesada de nance is an applesauce-pudding like dessert served with a sprinkle of local white farmers cheese on top.

    I personally think the flavor of Nance is an acquired taste.

  2. Thanks, Michael, for your comment and for the additional information on how nance fruits are used.

    I agree wholeheartedly about the acquired taste, :roll: although I liked the ice cream right away. 8)

  3. Great photos again. I have seen people eat nance just as a fruit and I don’t see how they do it.

    I must admit I do like the nance ice cream though. Now you have gone and made me hungry too.

  4. Pablo,

    I came across your blog while reading Niches one day. I admire the effort both of you – and others – are doing toward stewardship. One day I hope to get more organized in that respect. We’ve done a few very basic things so far, and, as is obvious, I’m spending most of my free time just learning the biota here. So the least I can do for now is point a reader or two in your (and Niches’) direction.

    I grew up in Missouri, by the way, over in the southwest part, so your blog brings all kind of resonance to me.

  5. HI,

    My name is Olmedo , i am a chiricano that just bump into your blog and I most confess that it is spectacular!

    I am more into birds than plants but it is good to know that someone is actively researching the plants of chiriqui.

    I also saw that you are having problems with macro photos and I like to suggest this relatively inexpensive technique with a panasonic FZ30 (any long zoom small sensor cam will do) and a raynox 150 to get pictures like this:

    Here is the way to do it:

    I have try it and it is really great.

    I hope I have been helpful

    Bye, and thanks for your work.

    Olmedo Miro

  6. Olmedo,

    Thank you very much for your kind comments and for the links to macro tips. I’m afraid my camera is a relatively old digital one that doesn’t take other lenses, but I’m interested in the techniques. There may be a way to use some of them even with my camera.

    I’m certainly impressed by your photos on smugmug!


  7. you welcome!

    probably you should consider a camera like this:

    which is great (i have the older model) plus a macro adapter like this:

    there are plenty of other choices.

    but, it is just a suggestion


  8. Thank you for the information in this webside. Finally, I found some information and pictures, that I can show to my american friends…….. Nance fruit is one of my favorite ; I can eat them all day as drinks, en dulce (syrup), or just plain from the tree.
    To enjoy its flavor, one has to make sure that the fruit is very riped.
    Thank You Again.

  9. I am looking for a recipe for nance icecream. I am just dying to have it!!!


  10. Hello Yoided,

    I wish I could help you. I would suggest looking on the internet for ice cream recipes and find one that contains fruit. Substitute nance for the fruit and then experiment until you find the right proportions. Of course, if you’re based in Panama, you could probably buy it at almost any ice cream stand. Now’s the season!

    Good luck!
    ~ Mary

  11. Hello,
    i recently received a nance tree from my grandfather. He has several nance trees in his town (Nayarit, Mexico) and he wanted me to have one. The little tree is doing great in my area, Southern California, but I am concerned because I don’t know anything about the tree’s root system. Do you happen to know anything about the root system. I planted the tree 8′ from my house because my grandfather said that they are small trees.

    Thanks for reading my email,


  12. Hello Daniel,

    The nance trees in our area can grow pretty large, with a spreading crown. Wikipedia says the trees grow to 33 ft (10 m) in height. Certainly this is not as tall as, say an eucalyptus, tree, but it’s not a shrub, either.

    I just paced off the distance between the edge of the crown and the trunk of one of our mature nance trees. The distance was 21 feet.

    From this information, I’d recommend that, if at all possible, you re-plant your tree further from your house.

    Thanks for checking in.


  13. Mary,
    I think that I might have a different variety of nance. My grandfather has several trees in Mexico. He lives near the coast in San Cayetano, Nayarit, Mexico. He says that they grow around 20 feet. He was raised in the Mountain area of Nayarit and he grew up eating them. I will have to take pictures and share them with you. It has grown almost a foot this year and is still growing. Oh, you should post more pictures of your nance tree. I would love to see new pictures.


  14. I planted some nance seeds and a tree came up. It is in a pot right now. I live in central Florida. ( Lakeland ) Do you think I can plant this tree in the ground and it will survive our winter. Sometimes gets to 30 degrees, but just for a short time.

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