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What is Malpighia?

Alex Tree
Alex Tree

Malpighia is a genus of flowering plants from the Malpighiaceae, or nance, family. Tropical forests and rocky hillsides of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America serve as these plants’ natural habitat. The majority of these plants are also grown on farms and in gardens. Species of this genus are mostly evergreen trees and shrubs that bear edible fruits. There are more than 40 species of Malpighia plants on record.

As small trees, these evergreen plants can grow up to 19 feet (about 6 m) tall, while shrub varieties only reach heights of around 3 feet (1 m). The foliage of Malpighia plants are dense, green leaves with jagged margins and approximately 0.2 to 6 inches (0.5 to 15 cm) in length. Flowers of these perennials have exactly five petals and can grow either singularly or in umbrella-shaped clusters. Blossoms can exhibit white, pink, and purple colors, while their globular juicy fruits ripen to a bright shade of red.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

These flowering plants’ fruits grow in abundance during the summer. They are rich in vitamin C and can be eaten even when not fully ripe. The fruits, normally called drupes, of Malpighia plants have pulpy insides similar to plums and cherries that encase two to three hard seeds. Seeds from these plants are triangular in shape and have three lobes. Regions in South America and the Caribbean commonly process these fruits into jarred preserves and jellies.

One of the most commonly cultivated species of this genus is called the Barbados cherry, scientifically known as Malpighia glabra. This species can be seen in Texas in the United States, the West Indies, and South America. They can be grown as trees, shrubs, and even miniature trees known as bonsai plants, though the maximum height of these plants as bonsai art is 1.5 feet (about 0.3 to 0.4 m). Like most species, leaves of the Barbados cherry are oval, and the flowers are pinkish white. Bonsai Barbados cherry plants also have miniature edible fruits that turn red or orange as they mature.

Most Malpighia species easily adapt to dry and warm climates, and caring for them only requires minimal time and energy. Most species are known for being slow growers, however, especially the shrub and bonsai varieties. These plants’ limbs can be wired to control their direction of growth and constant pruning of the leaves can keep them from spreading too sparsely. Propagation can be done through cutting, layering, and direct seed planting. Malpighia plants can live for up to 80 years when properly attended.

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