Plant of the Week
Indian olive (Nestronia umbellula Raf.)
By Cindy Wentworth
Indian olive is a member of the sandalwood (Santalaceae) family. In the tropics, this family includes the fragrant sandalwood (Santalum) which is used in perfumes and furniture. Indian olive is a southern Piedmont endemic, known to occur in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. It is a parasitic shrub, growing on the roots of pines according to some references, and on the roots of hardwoods according to others. Habitat for the plant varies range-wide, inhabiting upland mixed pine and hardwood stands, pine stands, and growing with upland oaks and hickories.
The leaves of this shrub are from 1 inch to 2 ½ inches long, and are opposite on the stems. Leaves may be lance-shaped or ovate (egg-shaped). They can resemble blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) and huckleberry (Gaylussacia spp.) leaves, but both of these berry species have alternate leaves. Branchlets of Indian olive are purplish brown in color, whereas the blueberry and huckleberry are green. Indian olive can also resemble sweet shrub (Calycanthus floridus) which has opposite leaves, but the sweet shrub can easily be distinguished by being taller and by the spicy smell of the leaves and twigs when crushed. Flowering time for Nestronia is anywhere from late April to May. The flowers are somewhat inconspicuous, and yellow-green in color. Individual plants are dioecious, having all male or all female flowers on any one plant. Because most populations consist of either all female or all male- flowered plants, reproduction is primarily by root sprouting. Thus these shrubs are usually found occurring in clumps, or clones. Fruit production appears to be rare due to isolation of populations.
The literature was searched for any medicinal or traditional uses of this plant. In addition to “Indian olive”, other common names are leechbrush or leechbush and conjurer’s root. These names would seem to indicate some utilization for medicinal purposes. After much searching, a reference was found in William Bartram’s Travels to “physic-nut, or Indian olive”. His description does fit that of Nestronia, and the website for the Natural History Museum of London confirmed the Latin and common names for the species, along with a drawing by Bartram. Bartram states that when “the Indians go in pursuit of deer, they carry this fruit with them, supposedly with the power of charming the animal to them” This statement and his observation of fruiting plants would make it seem that fruiting was perhaps more common in this species in Bartram’s day, than it is today (i.e. male and female plants were more commonly found together, probably as a result of today’s land-use practices).