When I was a kid, our family would go out driving around in the Lowcountry every now and then; that's when I started appreciating just how nice the Lowcountry is.
I remember family outings, late in the summer, to visit some friends at their country home in Hampton County, not too far from the Savannah River, having lunch in the kitchen, with what seemed to be miles of old screened windows letting in a fragrant breeze.
Hens and chicks would fuss and talk outside under the live oaks, with Guinea hens plodding around in their careful way. Spanish moss swaying quietly in the trees.
There always seemed to be a buzzard floating way up in the sky, with cicadas droning mindlessly on and on.
The kitchen table was fitted with a checked yellow oilcloth, and there was always fresh produce from the garden, along with a half-finished bottle of Tabasco sauce, some hot peppers in vinegar, a jar of what looked like dill pickles – but curiously labeled with the unusual words “Polski Wyrob,” which at the time was, for me, quite confusing.
Then we'd go riding around some more, sometimes to a place with tame deer in a pen.
The deer liked to lick our hands with their slick tongues, which was quite a treat, and they also liked to eat cigarettes: astounding!
Such a combination of experiences, including tastes and smells, leaving strong impressions and a chain of memories.
This week's Mystery Plant is a resident of the Lowcountry, one with a really interesting smell of its own.
They say that in the past, these plants used to be harvested in the Lowcountry in order to flavor smoking tobacco.
To me, the foliage has a scent like vanilla, mixed with honey and warm leather. And a little spice, too – cinnamon?
On a warm, still day in the woods where this plant grows, the very air holds the fragrance, making a strong woodsy perfume.
Now, this plant is at home in sandy woods in the low country of South Carolina, often seen in flatwoods or savanna habitats.
It occurs from coastal North Carolina down to northern Florida and then Louisiana.
Each plant will have a shock of smooth, slick leaves down at the bottom, rapidly reduced upward along the stem, which is green and smooth.
Branching occurs at the top of the plant, where the flowers are produced.
All of the flowers are in heads (the plant is in the sunflower family, after all), and each tiny flower is an attractive purple-pink color.
Each flower will produce a slender, black achene, along with a tuft of soft, white bristles at the top.
As a member of the sunflower family, this species is perhaps most closely related to the “bone-sets” (genus Eupatorium) and the blazing-stars (genus Liatris).
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, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Answer: “Vanilla plant,” “Deer-tongue,” Carphephorus odoratissimus