by Kyle Sweet, Florida Master Naturalist
The South Florida landscape is filled with a great variety of plants from all around the world thanks to our abundant rains and moderate climate. One of these world travelers, that is at the same time considered a Sanibel native, is the Gray Nickerbean. The Gray Nickerbean is also known here and throughout other parts of the world as yellow nicker, gray nicker, nicker nut and wait – a bit.
Gray Nickerbean is found in most coastal counties throughout the Florida peninsula, as well as in Texas. Worldwide, the distribution of the Nickerbean is quite great thanks to the buoyant gray beans that are able to float at sea for months, eventually finding a place to grow along a shoreline.
The fruit of the Nickerbean are green prickly fruit that turn brown when ripe and bare large, gray beans. The beans are actually prized by collectors and are used as beads in jewelry as well as kept as good luck charms in some parts of the world. Other uses include game pieces and natural medical remedies of all sorts.
Seemingly invasive in our native island landscape, the Gray Nickerbean climbs all throughout our native coastal plants, resting its weight on those it climbs. It’s thick, woody stems and branches are strongly armed with spines and thorns, making it a relatively dangerous plant to work around. Due to this, it is rarely used in the landscape but is documented as being cultivated. If planted and managed, it would surely make a strong, thorny barrier.
Beyond the very recognizable thorny fruit and gray emerging beans, the Nickerbean can be identified by its opposite arranged compound leaves and it’s yellow fragrant flowers that grow as tall spikes in the spring and summer months. The Gray Nickerbean is a host plant for the very rare Miami Blue butterfly as well as the Nickerbean Blue butterfly.
I’ve noticed the Gray Nickerbean beans along our Sanibel beaches many times and have watched the large thorny plants grow amongst a variety of native plants all along the edges of the golf course. If you keep your eyes out, you’re sure to see this fast growing, large native growing in or along the edges of native wooded areas. Don’t get to close though as this native seems to be able to reach and grab you with it’s thorny branches. Get just close enough to grab a good luck charm that you might find resting beneath the plant in the early summer months.