PLANT OF THE WEEK

Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department

 

MIRACLE BERRY PLANT

 

Common names:      Miracle Berry, Miracle Fruit, Sweet Berry

Scientific name:       Synsepalum dulcificum

Explanation of scientific name:       

Synsepalum  - from the Greek syn meaning with or together and the Latin sepalum meaning sepal (the leaf-like portion of a flower). The 5 sepals of this plant’s flowers are united above the middle.

dulcificum      - from the Latin dulcis meaning sweet or pleasant and ficum meaning fig-like or sweet

A truly unusual plant, the Miracle Berry Plant (Synsepalum dulcificum) can be an interesting addition to a houseplant collection.  A sunny windowsill is all you need to grow this plant that will amaze your friends. The amazing part is what will happen to you when you chew one of the plant’s ¾ to 1 inch long attractive, red fruits.  Once the fleshy, tasteless pulp coats your tongue, everything you eat for the next few hours or so will taste sweet.  Bite into a lemon or a lime and the distinctive flavors of these fruits will be enjoyed, but their sourness will not pucker your mouth.  Even a sip of straight vinegar will taste sweet.  The basis for this reaction is the presence of miraculin in the fruit of this species. This taste modifying protein does not actually taste sweet, but apparently it binds to receptors of the taste buds, temporarily changing their function.  While the taste modifying capabilities of the fruits have been known for over a century, miraculin was only isolated in the early 1970’s.  The exact mechanism of action has yet to be elucidated, but is the subject of research, especially for its potential use as an “artificial sweetener”.

Native to West Africa, the Miracle Berry is also known as Miracle Fruit and Sweet Berry. It grows as a small shrub with an appearance similar to an azalea.  Its fruits develop from small white flowers.  Intolerant of freezing weather, Miracle Berries cannot be planted outdoors in NJ.  As potted plants they prefer an acid soil, and will thrive if moved outdoors for the summer.

While it would be foolish of me to advocate the consumption of a plant part that has not been completely studied, I grow the plant and I have tasted its fruits.  They really do work.  So, even if you only grow the plant for its appearance, it can serve as a conversation piece.  Several mail order nurseries sell the Miracle Berry Plant. It also propagates readily from cuttings.  

A Miracle Berry plant, with ripe fruit, growing in one of Union County College's greenhouses.