Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   



Flora Fact

Tip Your Cap

Turk’s cap, named for turban-like blooms, is mostly edible.

Four decades ago in New Braunfels, a Turk’s cap popped up in my front yard.

It started with a few stems in a shady spot where nothing else grew. The leaves were wide and roughly heart shaped. The plant grew and branched, becoming a 3-foot shrub that brushed the windowsill. In May, it surprised me with a crop of bright red, twisty-petaled flowers.

That was my first encounter with Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii, a Texas native doing what it does best.

“The best thing about Turk’s cap is it’s one of our few plants that consistently flower well in shade,” says Joe Marcus, Native Plants of North America program coordinator at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.

Turk’s cap belongs to the mallow family, which also includes hibiscus, okra and cotton. Those plants produce wide, showy blossoms. Turk’s cap is different: its flowers never open all the way. The pollen-bearing structure, consisting of multiple stamens united in a column, extends like an antenna from the twisted petals. Flowers typically first appear in April or May, and the plants may bloom on and off all summer.

To some eyes, the flower’s unusual shape resembles a Turkish turban, hence the common name. This plant is also called wax mallow, bleeding hearts and manzanita (little apple) because or the red fruit that matures in fall. Measuring less than an inch across, the fruit looks like a tiny beefsteak tomato and tastes like a bland apple.

In fact, all parts of Turk’s cap except the stems are edible. Fruits can be eaten fresh, dried or made into jelly. Young leaves can be steamed like spinach. Flowers may be picked for their sweet nectar or dried and brewed into a tea. The fruit is also popular with birds, and the red blooms attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

Botanists recognize several varieties of the species M. arboreus, most of them native to Mexico and Central America. Variety drummondii, named for naturalist Thomas Drummond, is well adapted to life in Texas and the southeastern United States. In Central Texas, it finds shady spots on limestone hills and forms colonies on wooded stream banks. It likes moist soil but can tolerate periods of drought. Leaves last until the first frost. In a cold winter, the plant may freeze to the ground, but the roots will survive and come up with new growth in the spring.  


 Laura Adams

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