Come to HMNS After Dark for a Sweet Surprise!

You may use artificial sweeteners in your tea or coffee, maybe even sprinkle some on your food, but there’s nothing quite like the miracle fruit to make sour foods more palatable. Just gnaw on one of these berries for a minute, let the juice coat your tongue, and for up to an hour, everything from plain yogurt to lemons to Sour Patch Kids taste just as sugary as Lucky Charms!


Meet the berries of the miracle fruit plant (Synsepalum dulcificum). After eating just one, everything else tastes a little bit sweeter for up to an hour.

Here’s how it works: the berries of the Synsepalum dulcificum plant, which we cultivate in the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, contain a protein named miraculin after the effect they have on your taste buds. The protein confuses the sensitivity of the sweet and sour-tasting areas of your tongue, tricking your mouth into thinking certain foods are filled with sugar. That’s right… If you munch a miracle berry, you can eat a whole pile of lemons without making a face! But be careful. Your tongue might be fooled, but your stomach will know the difference.

Because we’ve just harvested a crop of these miracle berries from our own miracle fruit plant, we’re offering an opportunity for you to try this magical plant out for yourself. Come to HMNS After Dark next Wednesday, March 30, from 5 to 9 p.m. and visit the booth outside the CBC to try a berry and experiment with its effects. We’ll give away both berries and snacks to sample along with them completely free to guests enjoying our new after-hours schedule!


This is the seed pod of a cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), from which we make cocoa butter and chocolate. Inside this pod are fats, oils, and cocoa beans.

While you’re snacking, pop into the CBC to visit our incredible butterfly collection and see how other kinds of tropical fruit grow. You may now know it, but we grow papaya, pineapple, bananas, cocoa and coffee right here in the museum, along with several other kinds of exotic edibles! It’s another way you can learn about the interaction between pollinating insects and the plants that need their help to produce fruit. Check out these photos of fruit-producing specimens, taken right in our own rainforest!


Coffee beans (Coffea arabica), not to be confused with cocoa, grow individually. Once the fruit is removed, the bean is roasted and then ground to make America’s favorite hot beverage.


Papaya trees (Carica papaya) bear their fruit in a row along the main stem. Except for the yellow one at the bottom, these are still far from ripe.


It looks like the large pineapple in back is sneaking up on the smaller one in front. Pineapple plants (Ananas comosas) are a terrestrial bromeliad.


These red bananas (Musa acuminata) aren’t ripe yet, but they won’t grow much bigger than this. They’ll just turn red.

That’s it for the familiar ones. Have you heard of these three below?


Yes, this is an edible fruit! It’s called Monstera deliciosa, which grows in Central and South America.


The sapodilla plant (Manilikara zapota), bears fruit that looks similar to a kiwi, but is orange inside.


The noni fruit (Morinda citrifolia), also known as the cheese fruit or vomit fruit, is edible, but it produces a foul odor that makes eating it quite unpleasant.


Some other fruiting plants in our collection aren’t producing at the moment, but are still worth a look. Keep your eyes peeled for the vanilla orchid, avocado, starfruit, rose apple, guanábana, and guava. Whatever you find, in the CBC at HMNS After Dark, you can definitely expect a sweet surprise.


Our butterflies are some of the most spectacular on earth, and without them, many of these fruits would never reach maturity. So next time you’re at the CBC, thank a butterfly!

Butterfly Center Fruit Salad

The tropical habitat that our butterflies call home is a great place to learn about some cool and useful rainforest plants. I must have been hungry today because all of the plants that came to mind were those with edible fruits! Here are some examples of fruit trees you can find in the Butterfly Center.  SInce most of our plants hail from Latin America, I’ve given common names in both English and Spanish, when available.

Star Fruit/Carambola – Averrhoa carambola 

This tree is a relative of the sour “clover” (Oxalis) weed that grows in Houston lawns and gardens.  The common name describes the five-sided fruit, yellow when ripe, that when sliced shows the star shape.  Carambola is quite tart, even when ripe, and is most often used to make a fruit drink in Central and South America.  In the USA it is sometimes seen as an exotic garnish on gourmet salads.  You’ll pay $2 or more per fruit, if you can even find it – we should open a fruit stand here because our tree is loaded!  Luckily the butterflies enjoy sipping on the fallen, overripe ones. 

Cacao/Chocolate – Theobroma cacao 

Theobroma means “drink of the gods” and most people agree that chocolate is a divine substance.  Unfortunately, our chocolate tree has not produced any fruits to date – perhaps because it needs to be cross-pollinated, and/or because its tiny pollinators, a midge (a minuscule fly sort of like a gnat), do not inhabit the butterfly center.  It’s too bad, because cacao pods are quite impressive – almost as big as a football, they grow out of the trunk and lower branches of their parent plant.  This phenomenon is called “cauliflory” (“trunk flower”) – and is rare in temperate plants.  It’s even more bizarre when you look at the flowers that produce such monster frutis; cacao flowers are very small and delicate, with an ornate and complicated structure.  Chocolate is made from the dried, ground up seeds, which when fresh are covered with a thin layer of tart, juicy flesh.

Coffee/Cafe – Coffea arabica

Creative Commons License photo credit: Demion

Coffee doesn’t need much introduction. The shrub’s berries, red when ripe, each contain two seeds or beans that are dried, roasted, ground and brewed to produce the aromatic and addictive drink, America’s favorite beverage. However, did you know that coffee is related to gardenias? If our coffee shrub is blooming when you visit, you will soon be convinced. The white flowers, much smaller than those of gardenia, have the same heavenly scent.

Calabash/Jocote – Crescentia cujete 

The calabash is another example of cauliflory.  This relative of catalpa (“bean tree”) and trumpet creeper produces large, hard, green fruits on its branches and trunk.  Calabashes look very much like round gourds even though the two plants are completely unrelated.  In Central America the dried jocote fruits are hollowed out and used for bowls or other containers; sometimes the outer rind is carved in decorative patterns.  In El Salvador people enjoy a drink (horchata) made from the ground-up seeds of jocote.  

Guava/Guayaba – Psidium guajava  

Adjuntas, Puerto Rico / Guayaba / Guava / Psidium guajava
Creative Commons License photo credit: Oquendo

These smallish trees, native to tropical America, are in the same family as eucalyptus. Guava bark is very smooth and thin, reminiscent of crape myrtle bark – no relation, however!  The pungent-smelling fruits are seldom eaten “as is” but are made into drinks or a thick jelly called “ate,” or are canned as “shells” – which are delicious served with cream cheese (a Cuban dessert specialty, I believe).  In nature, the rotting, fallen fruits are irresistible to some of the fruit-feeding butterflies such as the crackers, the malachite, etc.  I am happy to see that, thanks (?) to global warming, guavas are now being planted in Houston.  I’m sure our local emperor butterflies will learn to love the fruits as well.     

Jaboticaba – Myrciaria cauliflora 

Creative Commons License photo credit: SantaRosa OLD SKOOL

Another member of the eucalyptus family, and another producer of cauliflorous fruits, which are borne in thick clusters along the multiple trunks of these small trees.  However, unlike the calabash or cacao, jaboticaba fruits are quite small, about the size and color of a purple grape.  In its native Brazil, the fruits are mostly eaten fresh, but are also made into jellies and wine.  According to Wikipedia, “several potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory anti-cancer compounds have been isolated from the fruit.”

Avocado/Aguacate – Persica americana 

inside the beast
Creative Commons License photo credit: Darwin Bell

Who does not love the buttery flesh of an avocado fruit, either sliced in salads or mushed into guacamole?  In the wild, the much smaller, wild avocados are avidly sought by birds such as toucans and quetzals, who crave the calorie-laden fruit.   Again thanks to global warming, people are now growing avocados outdoors in Houston – but the main sources of commercial avocados are still California and Mexico.  Alas our tree in the Butterfly Center has yet to produce fruits.  

We occasionally have other fruiting plants in the Center (last year we grew pineapples), and there are plenty of other plants of interest.  So remember, despite the name, the Butterfly Center is not just about the butterflies!  Botanists are sure to enjoy it as well.

Owl butterflies sipping juice from
ripe mangos in the Butterfly Center
Starfruit Fields
Creative Commons License photo credit: AZAdam
Star Fruit