MYSTERY PLANT: Plant gives off root-beer scent
If I’d a cow that gave such milk, I’d dress her in the finest silk;
Feed her lots of sweet, sweet hay, and milk her twenty times a day.
– Joseph Winner, “Little Brown Jug”
Yesterday my botany class had its first field trip of the semester. It was chilly but not so bad. (Don’t forget that the middle of winter is a great time to study plants.) On our trip, we dealt mostly with woody plants with prominent, above-ground stems. Then we came up on this little thing, which is much different.
It’s an evergreen herb with leathery leaves, and the stem is actually below the soil. The leaves are attached to the top of this subterranean stem, each one on a long, slender stalk or “petiole.” Sometimes you’ll see a single leaf all by itself, but usually there are three or four (or more) on each plant. The leaf blades are dark green and rather shiny, and they usually feature a good bit of green-free zones, thus appearing mottled or variegated.
The blades are highly variable even on the same plant but most frequently arrowhead-shaped and triangular with rounded “lobes” down at the base, just above the attachment of the petiole. The blades themselves are a bit unusual as leaves go, in being just as wide or wider, than they are long. The stem of the whole plant isn’t very big, just a few inches, equipped with a tuft of rubbery roots. This little plant has nine (or so) rather close relatives in North America, and this is the most common of them in the Southeast, growing in various forest types from southern Virginia down to Louisiana.
Perhaps the best part of this short botanical story involves the plant’s spicy scent. All of its tissues are basically infused with compounds producing a strong – and pleasant – root-beer scent, and the roots and leaves have been used as a wild source of ginger. Of course, true ginger in the grocery stores is a completely different plant.
During the winter, this humble herb sits quietly on the chilly forest floor waiting for those first few sweet, warm days of early spring. Then it goes into action and develops a few flowers. Don’t look for them popping out above the ground, though; the flowers remain buried under the leaf litter, where it’s sheltered, quiet and dark.
The flowers will be tubular, up to three or so inches long, swollen at the base. There are no petals at all; the sepals that are present are fused, forming a bottle- or jug-shaped bloom housing the stamens and styles. The sepals are partially free at the tip end, forming three stumpy little lobes.
The whole flower is rather drab but in a pleasant way, purplish-brown. No flashy butterflies or bumbling bees help with pollinating; it is thought that very tiny insects, possibly including thrips, help with this matter. Small pods follow the “little brown jugs.”
Interestingly, it seems that certain ant species are useful in moving the little seeds around. For anyone inclined to see the flowers or fruits, you’ll need to get down on your hands and knees and carefully move the leaf litter away from the bottom of the plant.
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia. The Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call (803) 777-8196.
[Answer: “Wild ginger,” “Little brown jugs,” Hexastylis arifolia]