JOHN NELSON’S MYSTERY PLANT: Plant resides in shady wetlands
We’ve had so much rain recently: maybe we should talk a little bit about wetland plant species. It’s a good thing to remind ourselves of wetland plants and their interactions with aquatic and “palustrine” habitats.
Wetlands in North America continue to be highly threatened, and in many cases, so are the resident plants (and animals) within them. Urbanization, the conversion of lands to agriculture, and the disruption on natural stream flow have seriously affected many kinds of wetlands, in many cases destroying wetland habitats completely.
A variety of governmental regulations and rules have been designed to protect wetlands, and these are effective in various ways. Fortunately, the southeastern United States continues to exhibit a very wide variety of healthy wetland habitats, along with an enormous diversity of wetland plant species. Here’s a plant that you’ve probably seen.
It’s a plant of quiet, still waters, frequently in fairly deep shade, often arising from muck from a dense network of branching rhizomes. The stems are soft and a bit hairy, featuring a series of stalked, veiny, heart-shaped leaves, whose lower portions form a sheath around the stem.
Branching frequently occurs toward the top of the plant. One or more prominent and somewhat peculiar spike-like inflorescences will develop in the early summer, and these are wonderful to behold. Each spike is made up of several hundred very small flowers, without any sepals or petals.
The flowers are still conspicuous, though, due to the whitish stamens (six or eight or so) in each. The individual flowers are in fact slightly scented, and when you have a really big patch of the plants in full bloom, they tend to give off a sweet fragrance. A single pistil is present in each tiny blossom, and its ovary eventually develops into a greenish, berry-like fruit. Botanists say that the wiggly spike is “flexuous,” that is, nodding at the tip.
The effect is quite unusual, and, for that matter, this is one of the easiest plants in our area to recognize: nothing else blooms quite this way. It doesn’t have any other close relatives here in the Southeast, but it is distantly related to the tropical plant that gives us black pepper.
You can find this wetland species over much of the eastern USA, from lower New England well into the Midwest, and then basically throughout the southern states. It is most common on swampy low ground habitats of the coastal plain, and isn’t seen too much in the mountains. It can grow in shade, but the biggest patches I’ve ever seen are out in the sun.
You might think that the spike looks something like a chameleon’s tail – one of those lizards hunting flies on your porch. (Would that make it a Jurassic porch?)
In fact, Carl Linnaeus, who named this plant, and who had an imaginative sense of humor, used the words (in Latin, of course) for “lizard” and “drooping” in coming up with the plant’s scientific name.
John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Answer: “Lizard’s-tail,” Saururus cernuus]