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Pearlberry

Pearlberry; Margyricarpus pinnatus (Lam.) O. Kuntze
= Margyricarpus setosus Ruiz & Pav.
Rose Family; ROSACEÆ

    The Pearlberry is not showy and glamorous like most popular garden flowers, but is a quietly beautiful rich green heather-like plant bestudded with pure white pearls. A rare curiosity, it was given its unwieldy scientific name appropriately from the simple Greek margaron (pearl) and karpos (fruit). Though many other plants produce white berries, there is nothing else quite like it. From a distance, at first glance we may be forgiven a shudder of revulsion if we think we are seeing a convention of spit-bugs; but closer acquaintance excites admiring wonder.
    Pearlberry is a low shrub of loose, slender stems neatly clothed with shiny, evergreen foliage, of a texture and scale like that of heather. Native to the Andes, it ranges through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and south Brazil. It is reported to be "used in Uruguay for fertility control," but I have no details on this.
    Though known to Western science since the 1790s, and cultivated in gardens since 1829, it is still rare and little known. Why? Deservedly or not, a reputation of tenderness and inability to survive where winters are not mild, clings to the plant. Seattle just suffered a winter freeze that killed several of my South American and South African plants. The Pearlberry was scarcely hurt at all, and looks better than it did a year ago.
    Starting in late June, its pearly, one-seeded fruits reach full size in a long succession. They are created by what may be the least visible flowers in the entire Rose family. These diminutive flowers are practically invisible, so if it were not for the gleaming berries they give rise to, the plant would likely hold no interest to gardeners. Berries on my specimen measure at maturity more or less a quarter inch in diameter. Book descriptions tend to allow them less size. Heavy rain knocks the ripe berries off.
    Evidently the plant is completely self-fertile, since mine sets plentiful crops and its seedlings keep appearing. It grows in a sunny, well-drained sandy soil, and is a half-foot tall and more than a foot wide. Not far from it are plants enjoying similar conditions: sagebrush, rosemary, Ephedra, and kinnikinnick.
    In a mood of science, not romance, a man once declared "pearls are the gallstones of oysters." But they're pretty withal. The pearls of this plant are, alas, chiefly the delight of the eye. For although they're perfectly edible, they possess no flavor, and we have no reason to suppose they are particularly nutritious. Yet even if they have a few vitamins, enzymes, and trace minerals, they are welcome to our diet.
    Moreover, a pearlberry bush is a worthy addition to the garden, if only because it is fun and odd. Many of us have appropriate rockery-like settings where it will thrive. Children won't mind the flavorlessness of the berries. It's a refreshing change to grow a South American native alongside our boringly familiar Old World rockery plants. We need to plant it widely in order to find what kinds of soil and levels of sunlight suit it best. In some conditions it may become a nuisance by reseeding too widely.

(Originally published in the August 1989 Seattle Tilth newsletter, along with an illustration by Annie Figliola.)

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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