You're not likely to find a gopher nibbling on gopher apple, especially here in South Florida. A gopher tortoise, now that's another matter altogether.
Gopher apple, Licania michauxii, is a Florida native, found throughout most of the state. Its native range includes Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, sneaking into a corner of South Carolina and Louisiana.
It's short, generally growing to a maximum of about a foot tall, with stems that are on the woody side. Consider it a tiny shrub. The respected Flora of North America does note that there is one Florida population of gopher apple that's five feet tall, however. In spring and summer, it produces clusters of small, greenish flowers. The fruit that follows in summer is about the size and shape of an olive, green with a blush of red as it ripens, sort of like an apple. The plant resembles cocoplum to an extent, which isn't totally surprising, because they're members of the same family.
The fruit is edible but apparently opinions vary widely on how good it tastes. Some say it has none; Green Dean, our favorite Florida forager, says it tastes like the bubble gum that comes with baseball cards (or at least used to back in the day).
Gopher apple can form large patches. Its roots grow deep and extend outward and send up shoots that become new plants, making it important as a ground cover. It does best in full sun, and relies on fire to clear plants that normally would overshadow it. Those deep roots also allow it to reestablish itself after a blaze. The plants on this page were growing in an area that had been through a prescribed burn about two years prior. Habitats include dry places like sand hills, pinelands and scrubs,
The gopher apple is a favorite food of the endangered gopher tortoise. In fact, the range of the gopher tortoise pretty much overlaps the range of the gopher apple. Birds, squirrels and other small mammals also eat the fruit. The flowers are favorites of pollinators.
The Seminoles ate the fruit, but they also found the whole plant useful medicinally. They used the roots and leaves to relieve labor pains and hasten child birth. They also used them to stop vomiting, diarrhea and frequent urination, and to treat stomach pain. They would treat the insane by bathing the person in steam made using roots and leaves. That sounds crazy by 21st century standards, but it probably was no less effective a cure than what western medicine had to offer at the time.
Gopher apple has gained the attention of Florida's phosphorus industry as a plant to use in mine reclamation efforts but the've run into the same problems as others have looking to cultivate it. Gopher apple would seem in many ways to be the perfect plant for such a job — it's tough and it attracts wildlife — but it's difficult to propagate, doesn't transplant well and seeds are scarce.
Gopher apple is a member of Chrysobalanaceae, the same family as cocoplum. One other common name: ground oak, so-called because the plants resemble oak seedlings.