Gopher apple is best recognized by its one and a half to four inch long leaves that resemble a narrow oak leaf. Stems are close to the ground and resemble oak seedlings. From this resemblance comes the common name, ground oak. Stems grow deep underground and gradually spread to form a groundcover that is semi-evergreen in upper reaches of Zone 8, but evergreen in Zones 9 and higher. Growing from 1 to 1½ foot tall, gopher apple spreads out to form colonies that eventually cover more than 100 square feet. These colonies are easy to identify even at a speed of 70 miles per hour down the interstate by their bright green foliage growing in patches along the roadside.
Terminal clusters of creamy white, five-petaled flowers are most numerous in May and June but may appear during other parts of the year. In fall expect to see an oval shaped apple-like fruit that is one to two inches long. The fruit is edible, and reports from "having little flavor" to "tasting like bubblegum" appear in the writing of various authors. Fruits start out white and ripen from slightly purplish to red in color. Each fruit contains one seed.
Plant gopher apple in full sun and well-drained, sandy soil. Enriched soil is not necessary as it grows best in poor, nutrient-starved soil. Extremely deep roots and waxy leaves increase its tolerance of almost anything nature can throw its way, including scorching sun, fire, frost, and intense drought. While gopher apple tolerates moderate amounts of salt-laden wind without injury, it cannot withstand long-term flooding by salt or brackish water. Few choices are better as a stabilizer for poor, dry, sandy soils found along roadsides in the Deep South or in sandy soils near the Gulf Coast or other bodies of salt water.
As with many tough native plants, almost no care is needed for gopher apple once it becomes established. It can be mowed, stepped on, and otherwise abused, and it bounds back with continued strong growth.
Propagate gopher apple by collecting the fruits and then removing and planting the seeds. Cuttings do not root well, and most of the literature indicates that transplanting often results in failure. However, I have successfully transplanted small pieces removed from the roadside with a few roots attached. I first planted a few of these collected pieces in a container. After it was established I planted it in the landscape in a sunny area with particularly poor soil where it continues to thrive.
Kinds and Distribution
Licania michauxii can be found in naturally occurring stands in dry pinelands, on sandy roadsides, and on coastal dunes. It is widely distributed on the southeastern coastal plain of the United States from South Carolina down to Florida, and it stretches west to Louisiana. Companion plants in nature are turkey oak (Quercus laevis) and longleaf pine (Pinus palustris).
Gopher apple is an important plant in the ecosystems of the coastal plain. Much of the land is stabilized, and many mammals, including the threatened gopher tortoise, seek out the fruit. Bees, flies, and other flying creatures use the flowers as a source of nectar. Like other tough native plants, colonies of gopher apple are a step towards a sustainable ecosystem that aids in supporting our native wildlife.
At a Glance
Pronunciation: lye-KAY-nee-uh miss-SHOW-ee-eye
Family: Chrysobalanaceae (Cocoplum family)
Common names: Ground oak, gohper apple
Origin: Southern USA
Light: Full sun
Water use zone: Low
Size: 3 to 18 inches high and spreading
Soil: Well-drained, sandy; slightly alkaline to acidic
Salt tolerance: High
Thanks to Jessl for the image of gopher apple in bloom.