Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Dense possumhaw fruit

with 17 comments


On January 22nd in the little town of Canyon City—in Texas any hamlet can get named a city—this densely fruited possumhaw tree (Ilex decidua) wouldn’t let me keep driving unless I made a portrait of it. I gave in.



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In a comment last week our New Zealand friend Amanda made me aware that groups like the World Health Organization have been using the term malnutrition in a non-traditional way. Here’s that group’s definition: “Malnutrition, in all its forms, includes undernutrition (wasting, stunting, underweight), inadequate vitamins or minerals, overweight, obesity, and resulting diet-related noncommunicable diseases.”

Now, Latin mal- means ‘bad’ or ‘badly,’ so etymology could support the World Health Organization’s definition of malnutrition. However, my guess is that most English speakers, perhaps almost all, believe malnutrition refers exclusively to undernutrition or to the insufficient intake of vitamins and minerals. That’s how I’ve always interpreted the term. To see whether I’ve been out of line, I turned to a bunch of dictionaries. Merriam-Webster defines malnutrition as “faulty nutrition due to inadequate or unbalanced intake of nutrients or their impaired assimilation or utilization.” Here’s the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary: “a poor condition of health caused by a lack of food or a lack of the right type of food.” The American Heritage Dictionary’s definition is “Poor nutrition because of an insufficient or poorly balanced diet or faulty digestion or utilization of foods.” The Collins English Dictionary puts it this way: “If someone is suffering from malnutrition, they are physically weak and extremely thin because they have not eaten enough food.”

The closest that any of the dictionaries I consulted came to including obesity or being overweight was: “[Malnutrition] can be caused by not getting enough to eat, or it can be caused by not eating enough healthy foods.” Even so, there’s no mention of being overweight or obese.

I believe an organization that communicates with the public needs to do so clearly. It should not use a word in a way that many people will interpret differently from what the organization intends by the word. Are the World Health Organization and some other groups including obesity and being overweight in the category of malnutrition to increase the number of people the groups can label “malnourished”? In other words, are the groups defying the traditional definitions of malnutrition and malnourished for ideological purposes or to increase funding? I don’t know. I became aware of this only five days ago and I haven’t done any research on it. What I can say is that the conjecture is at least plausible, given how many recent instances I’ve seen of ideologues trying to redefine words away from their longstanding meanings, much as George Orwell presciently described in his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, and in his essay “Politics and the English Language.”


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman





Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 1, 2023 at 4:30 AM

17 Responses

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  1. Wow, that tree certainly isn’t starved for berries, what a display!

    Robert Parker

    February 1, 2023 at 5:36 AM

  2. Impressive that such a heavy crop of berries has survived so long. (Assuming that they don’t just fruit really late compared to trees and bushes here.) Do the birds eat them?

    Ann Mackay

    February 1, 2023 at 6:01 AM

    • Do they ever! That goes for the possumhaw and also its close relative, the yaupon, which I recently showed a picture of.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2023 at 12:59 PM

  3. I’ve never seen a possumhaw so loaded with berries. This certainly was the season for them in central Texas. I did check the location of Canyon City, and I’d be willing to bet any trees there, including this gorgeous possumhaw, look a bit different this morning. However pleasing aesthetically, a coating of ice isn’t to be desired; I hope you’ve still got your power. The good news is that this mess isn’t state-wide, and it will soon be gone.


    February 1, 2023 at 7:07 AM

    • We lost a yaupon to the ice last night. I was out a while ago taking pictures if its ice-encased berries and branches, which I could get close to after the tree fell.

      “Soon” is a relative term. Austin Energy says it helps to get all the power restored by the end of Friday. If that happens, fine, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this goes into the weekend.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2023 at 1:15 PM

      • Was that the yaupon that’s next to your office window — the one from which you’ve photographed birds and squirrels? So much loss. I did notice some discrepancies in the statements of Austin Energy officials about the timing of power restoration. Like you, I don’t think it will be complete by Friday night; the end of the weekend seems more likely. I see there still are outages around you; I hope you have your power back by now.


        February 2, 2023 at 7:25 PM

        • No, the fallen yaupon is a larger one in the backyard that I have only occasionally photographed. How the little one outside my computer room window will hold up after Ashe juniper damage adjacent to it, I don’t yet know. What I can say is that the cedar waxwings have made at least one return visit to the yaupon outside my computer room window. Yesterday I took pictures of fruit and ice on the fallen tree now that its branches were low enough I could easily get at then.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 3, 2023 at 7:39 AM

        • As for getting our power restored, when Austin Energy originally said everyone would have electricity again by the end of Friday, I knew that that was not going to be the case. Now the company has admitted that they were overly optimistic and they’re not giving any estimate of when power will be restored. My guess is not before the weekend, which is what I had said all along and what you surmise also. After we finally got our car out yesterday afternoon and drove around the neighborhood a little I did see a couple of electric crews working on the lines but so far we are still in the cold. At least now with the car we can go to warm places. Last night it was a Nepali restaurant. This morning it’ll be a cafê.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 3, 2023 at 7:46 AM

  4. With its incredible fruitfulness, I am glad the possumhaw tree did not let you drive by without taking this marvellous picture.

    Peter Klopp

    February 1, 2023 at 9:33 AM

  5. Oh wow, that is dense! The birds probably loved it.


    February 1, 2023 at 9:57 AM

    • Even after our ice storm, a bunch of these birds came back yesterday, so there’s less fruit on the yaupon now. Unfortunately, the ice brought down another yaupon in the yard.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2023 at 10:02 AM

  6. What a beautiful, fully loaded possum haw! It looks like an explosion went off in a Atomic Fireball candy factory.

    Lavinia Ross

    February 1, 2023 at 10:55 PM

  7. It’s interesting that I also associate the word malnutrition with insufficient intake of food, but surprisingly I have also seen cases of obesity in poor people who don’t seem to have enough to eat. In these circumstances people sometimes will overindulge in carbohydrates and fats and sugar to kill their hunger and they appear fat when in fact they are malnourished. But of course WHO needs to strive for clarity, I agree.

    Alessandra Chaves

    February 1, 2023 at 11:20 PM

    • I may do a little informal survey to see if most people interpret malnutrition the way you and I do. And I understand what you and some organizations say about bad nutrition leading people to possibly get fat, so I wish there could be another word for that.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2023 at 9:56 AM

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