Gloomy, gloomy, these misty spring days after all the ice and rain. One wonders if it ever will warm up and get sunny.
And yet, there are plenty of early spring flowers out and about now to give us at least the perception of coming warmth and botanical bounty.
As long as we are going to be out on a field trip, here is a little shrub that offers its cheery flowers to brighten things up a bit.
It's a native species, distributed rather widely in the eastern United States. It is a completely deciduous shrub, and it blooms before the leaves or just as the tender, new leaves are starting to unfold.
This shrub is a twiggy little thing, and sort of disappears into the foliage once summer is with us. The leaves are rather “standard” as leaves go: elliptical and green, shaped like a football.
The smooth twigs themselves are quite supple, and easily bent, which is one of the most remarkable things about this species, at least when you aren't seduced by its attractive flowers.
If you take a look at one of its branches, you'll also see that the nodes (the points at which the leaves are attached) are clearly swollen.
The bark is tan or light brown, and it has a peculiar feature: it's very tough. You can strip the bark in thin pieces down a considerable length of the stem.
This bark has apparently been used by the old-timers as a sort of ersatz cord or string. You never know when, on a field trip, you might need to wrap up what's left of your lunch in a couple of big sycamore leaves.
Maybe you can find this little shrub and employ its stringy bark for this purpose.
For me though, our mystery plant is remarkable for its flowers. They are bright yellowish-green, or clearly yellow.
Two or three (or four) will be clustered together, hanging at a node.
The flower is tubular, and made up of a calyx; there aren't any petals (we say that the calyx is therefore petaloid, since they look like petals.)
I put my nose down to the little flowers you see pictured here but didn't detect any fragrance.
Following these flowers, the ovary will develop into a small green olive-like fruit. Not very conspicuous.
Although our mystery shrub is widespread, it's probably overlooked in the woods a lot. I've only seen it a few times here in South Carolina.
There is a second species, very similar, which grows in Missouri and Arkansas, and a third species, too, restricted entirely to central California.
Not to change the subject too much, but there are several of you out there that like to grow the evergreen and beautifully fragrant shrub “winter Daphne” (Daphne odora) in your yard or garden.
You might like to know that our mystery plant is distantly related to Daphne, but they reside in different genera. And, like our mystery plant, the flowers of Daphne have a petaloid calyx and no petals.
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Answer: “Leatherwood,” Dirca palustris]