MYSTERY PLANT: Plant produces fruit in fall

  • Posted: Saturday, March 23, 2013 1:52 p.m.

Yesterday’s class field trip took us deep into the Sandhills, within the confines of Clemson University’s Sandhill Research and Education Center not so far from downtown Columbia. Up and down we plodded through a variety of habitats, which included xeric wooded slopes, and a wetland at the margin of a pond.

Such wetlands are typically dominated by shrubby vegetation, and often end up being called “pocosins” by the naturalists. Now, the word “pocosin” has become a word that means, among scientists, a wetland, frequently on slopes or hillsides and dominated by a variety of shrubs, especially members of the blueberry family (the family Ericaceae), such as various species of dog-hobble, huckleberry and blueberries. Other prominent residents of a well-developed pocosin are a variety of native hollies, mountain laurel, horse-sugar, ti-ti and an assortment of prickly catbriers. Pocosins are characterized, at least under natural circumstances, by relatively frequent wildfires. These fires have a variety of effects on pocosins, but the most easily understood is probably that of inducing abundant resprouting and branching of the shrubs present, all of which are adapted to frequent fires. As you might expect, a stroll through such a dense habitat is not performed without considerable effort, and most outdoor visitors are likely to steer clear of these crowded, inhospitable places and preferring to remain on a nearby and commodious path. In the Southeast, the best examples of these pocosins are surely those near the Atlantic Coast, especially within a stretch from the central coast of South Carolina north through Virginia. Here is a little shrub that frequents such habitats.

It is a slender plant, as shrubs go, rarely getting to be “small-tree” sized. Its blooms appear early in the spring, on clusters at the ends of the branches, just as the leaves are starting to unfold. The leaves are very finely and delicately toothed, and each of the individual teeth has a tiny purplish gland at the tip. The flowers are fragrant (to me they smell like honey), with five prominent white petals and plenty of stamens, each with a little pink anther. The flowers resemble those of various kinds of native hawthorns, and they also resemble those of the cultivated pyracantha and pear trees. (Well, that makes some sense, because all of these plants are somewhat related, and members of the rose family.) This species is fairly common through most of the Southeast, occurring as far north as Newfoundland, and even getting as far west as the mountains of Kentucky.

Probably the most attractive thing about this little plant are the gorgeous fruits it produces in the fall. The ovary of each flower eventually swells up and makes a brilliant, shiny red fruit, much like a miniature apple. We didn’t see any of the fruits on our field trip: maybe the critters ate them all up during the winter.

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, or email nelson@sc.edu.

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