The Bladdernut Tree
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 7/5/1998

There is a tree that grows at the water's edge along the Eno River or in its floodplain that knows well the art of wafting.  Averaging twelve feet in height, in spring it produces abundant, small, bell-shaped, white flowers that hang in drooping clusters, cascading down through its foliage all the way to its base.

Often I will find its branches extending out over the water. Against the backdrop of the other well known floodplain treelets such as pawpaw, hazelnut and painted buckeye. it is a plant that is sometimes overlooked unless it is in bloom or in its most distinctive mode, which is fruiting.

When I approach the bladdernut in the summer, I find that it is loaded with one and a half inch green fruits. They are three-celled, elliptical capsules with a single pointed top and a three or occasionally four-pointed base. The tree looks as if it is decked out for Christmas with a most bizarre type of dangling ornaments. By late fall their contents have become mature. In reality, most of this capsule consists of an inflated air bladder with a thin green skin.
But embedded inside each individual bladder are tiny brown nutlets that become hard as popcorn kernels. By fall the capsules are dropping off into the river. Obviously, a tree that introduces a fruit so ideal for floating down the river has an ancient relationship with water.

I often will come upon these gently wafting bladdernuts on their course down the river with their precious cargo kept inside safe and dry. They await a rainstorm to raise the level of the river so they can be buoyed up onto the nearby shore at flood stage and begin the next generation of bladdernuts.

There exists an interesting legend about the bladdernut. It is said that if you have not yet brought any children into the world,  just pluck the fruit, open it, and count the number of seeds inside. The number you find in your first opening of the fruit will reveal the number of your future offspring.

I had already fathered three children when I opened my first bladdernut, but on the average, I find between one and seven nutlets inside each bladdernut capsule that I open. Being too hard to crack with my teeth, I often pop several nutlets in my mouth just to roll around with my tongue as I waft down the river.

The scientific name for bladdernut is Staphylea trifolia. The Greek, Staphylea, means "cluster of grapes,'' referring to the plant's drooping, white, flower clusters. The Latin trifolia means "three leafed,'' describing the three leaflets of its compound leaf. What is odd to me is that Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who named the plant, did so by way of its flowers and leaves.

Although attractive, the bladdernut flowers do not immediately catch the eye, and its leaves are quite ordinary. I would think that anyone paying attention to this plant for the first time would immediately remark about its most unusual fruit and name it accordingly! But the common English name of bladdernut has done the plant justice when the Greek and Latin failed.

I find it quite remarkable that through the millennia this tree has managed to design its own boat to disperse its seeds on the river. In reality, its air-filled conveyance is nature's own inflatable raft! This is heartening to me in my line of work. On a number of occasions I have heard pejorative comments about my fleet of inflatable kayaks from users of hard-shelled boats who consider an inflatable to be a mere toy. They seem to think that a rigid, ribbed boat can be the only "real'' river conveyance. But I will remain confident in retaining my preference for my inflatable kayaks, resting on the example of the bladdernut.

What makes this plant even more appropriate as a model for my Piedmont wafting program is that the bladdernut is primarily a tree of the Piedmont floodplain of North Carolina, only rarely extending into the mountains or coastal plain.  I guess this points to wafting as truly a Piedmont experience.
Photo by Gary Wade: bladdernut fruit