Here’s a charming little creepy-crawler. It shows up just about anywhere in the eastern USA, quietly creeping along on a variety of substrates: sand, rock, damp or dry ground, tree stumps, rotten logs, often in shady woodlands, where it boasts bright green leaves, often streaked or mottled with white. It’s a humble little thing, always right along the ground.
Flowers? Well, of course. Its flowers are in pairs, and curiously, the ovaries (at the base) are fused. The corolla is almost an inch long, tubular and white, and rather conspicuous (and also a bit fragrant, but you’ll have to get down on your hands and knees to find out). The corolla is four-lobed at its apex, and it bears plenty of soft, woolly hairs on the inner surface, crowding for space with the four little stamens. When the flowers are done, the doubled ovary will swell into a fruit, and it is a winter-time treasure to see, bright, shiny red. These fruits remain on the plant all winter long and then a new crop of flowers will open in early summer. At the very top of each of the coupled fruits, you’ll see the remains of the calyx of each of the two flowers, still hanging on. Each calyx consists of four tiny sepals, and so the fruit appears to be a very red berry, topped with two small crowns. Go ahead and eat one They are edible but not very tasty.
Now if you go to Japan, you may see a very similar plant, hardly distinguishable from the American version. The Japanese plant is sometimes considered merely a different variety of the same species, but there is still some controversy as to its true identity. This plant has plenty of other relatives, however. Botanists classify our Mystery Plant as a member of the huge plant family (many thousands of species) named Rubiaceae (or “madder” family). This family is very widespread in the tropics and includes coffee and gardenia as members, as well as many other economically valuable species.
This plant received its scientific name from Carl Linnaeus, the “Father” of plant taxonomy, who was a botanist (of course!) and a medical doctor in Sweden. His most influential publication is probably a work called “Species Plantarum,” published in 1753, and which serves as the beginning of all modern, scientific plant names. Linnaeus was surely a genius and is credited now with (among other things) the standardization of two words for each name, thus resulting in what we call “binomials.” Linnaeus, an extremely clever fellow, was fond of naming plants after his colleagues, and this is a good example. In this case, the recipient of the honor was John Mitchell, from Virginia (born in 1711), who had proven himself as an excellent colonial botanist. The plant’s genus name is a derivation of Mitchell’s, and what a great honor it is. Of course, the specific epithet (the second part of the name) suggests humility, like the plant itself.
Answer: “Vivat Linnaeus!” (“Long live Linnaeus!”).
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196.