Botanists, gardeners and plant aficionados the world over flock to Lafayette, Louisiana for its unique and prolific flora. Perhaps the most sought after is also one of the most difficult to identify — the elusive Mardi Gras Tree (Shinyus Carnivalus).
The plant has frustrated the scientific community for more than a century with no prevailing group successfully arguing its proper kingdom. Experts have divided into several camps with the earliest claims coming from the very outspoken (even raucous) Rio group. Traditionally, the more conservative Gabriel committee has laid final claim to the plant’s proper kingdom, but the argument persists.
Identifying the tree when it is not bearing fruit can be one of the most difficult scientific endeavors imaginable. Due to its exceptionally lengthy dormant phase, this tree can be nearly indistinguishable from other species for six, eight, even ten months of the year. Additionally, the trees have been subject to significant cross pollination for over a century, giving the plants similar characteristics to other native species such as live oaks, crepe myrtles and even Japanese magnolias.
It’s best to attempt identification when the trees are in season, or bearing fruit. This occurs just after peak winter. Conventional wisdom from out-of-town enthusiasts is to plan your Mardi Gras Tree spotting expeditions roughly 40 days before the Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox (or Easter). It’s then that these mysterious plants turn from leafless, bony bundles of sticks into vibrant, eye-catching, colorful trees with long, sparkling, grape-like fruit.
Though the trees can sometimes be seen in the countryside they are most prevalent in densely populated municipalities along the Southern Gulf Coast, particularly Lafayette, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Mobile. Over the centuries the trees have evolved to thrive in these city environments and will most-often be found near roadways, especially parade routes.
The fruit from the trees is used by locals to make jewelry and can even be found in some works of art. Just before the trees bloom the jewelry can be worth a handsome sum with locals paying cash (even favors) in exchange for the exceptionally large specimens. Anticipation of the pending bloom has inspired a range of cultural rituals to welcome the coming harvest. However, once the trees have bloomed completely the fruit becomes essentially worthless until just before the next season.
The fruit is practically inedible. A movement to reduce litter from the trees prompted several local chefs to try incorporating the berries into culinary dishes with little success. It seems that whether blanched, boiled or deep fried the fruit seems to take on very little flavor and was reported to be a dental hazard to the elderly and young children. Recent investigations into the fruit’s pigment have raised concerns over lead content, prompting many officials to discourage eating or even chewing on the fruit altogether. Some have suspected that the tree came to the region along with the Chinese tallow tree and there have been reports that some of the fruit has been genetically traced to Chinese origins.
This year the trees are in full bloom at an exceptionally early time (that groundhog called it). We found a few bountiful specimens along Vermilion and Johnston streets (as you'll see in the gallery below). Please respect the trees by picking up the fallen fruit. This will keep their environment healthy and promote another full bloom next year.