Mystery plant is a native herb with orange blossoms
This past weekend I went kayaking – again. I was driving along the backroads toward the beautiful Edisto River, there in northern Colleton County, when I spied a wonderful habitat. A “loading deck.”
Not the kind of loading deck that you use to get a piano from a truck to the inside of a concert hall. No, this is the sort of loading deck that timber companies use to stack and arrange trees they have cut from a forest, the trunks then sawed into convenient sizes for loading onto trucks. Loading decks are typically right next to a road or highway for convenience. This is hard, noisy work, if you’ve never seen one in operation. Generally, timbering companies take pride in cleaning up a loading deck after it is used, removing the debris from the area once they have finished. The equipment and machinery they use often takes something of a toll on the landscape, though; frequently leaving ruts in the ground. As forms of mechanical disturbance to the ground, these ruts are important ecologically.
For one thing, ruts provide places for water to pool up, at least temporarily. And they often allow seeds within an existing soil bank to break dormancy and sprout. The “sudden” disappearance of a canopy overhead and the resultant sunlight entering the system are also important to the recovering vegetation below.
The loading deck that I saw was filled with all sorts of native species, blooming like crazy: plenty of species of sedges (nutrush, beakrush and Carex), meadow-beauties (Rhexia), skullcap (Scutellaria), seed-boxes (Ludwigia), milk-pea (Galactia), boneset (Eupatorium), purple ruellia, tickseed (Coreopsis) and this little guy.
This native herb, blooming now, has some of the most brilliant orange flowers you can ever see. The individual flowers are very small, though, so you probably need a hand lens to see them up close. The flowers are a bit unusual, in that two of the five sepals (the parts of the flower just below the petals), which in most flowers are greenish and somewhat inconspicuous, are enlarged and brightly colored. All the flowers tend to be congested into a rather dense head at the top of the stem, sort of like little drumsticks; this little plant usually isn’t much more than about a foot or so tall. A cluster of leaves will be found at the base of the stem. The roots, when fresh, will give off a sweet candy scent, something like wintergreen.
While it’s blooming, it is quite conspicuous. It is also very distinctive; there is really nothing else in the Southeast with tiny orange flowers clustered into heads (orange milkweed has larger flowers, usually in a flat-topped arrangement). Look for it in damp places in the Coastal Plain, where it is fairly common. It grows in roadside ditches and on pond edges, and in savannas and pocosins, sometimes on sphagnum moss. And sometimes in a rut.
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call (803) 777-8196.