MYSTERY PLANT: Mystery Plant is a member of the bean family
Spring – it's here! The pearlbush is at its blooming height, and the dogwood is just about to have its now pale cream-colored bracts stretch out fully and show off snowy whiteness.
The yellow jasmine is going crazy. The wisteria would be pouring out its delirious fragrance, but I think I succeeded in pulling it all up.
The Yoshino cherry is in full stride now, the delight of so many bees.
All this is happening in my backyard, and it makes me so happy to out there after work on these fantastic early evenings: the scents, the sounds of the wrens, cardinals and thrashers, and the antics of my frisking dogs, Hannah chasing Rosie – I love spring.
And our Mystery Plant is once again, and so faithfully, showing up in brilliant patches along the highways.
It is one of the deepest reds you can see around the Southeast: maybe cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis) has a brighter red shade, but our Mystery Plant comes in such greater abundance.
Our roadside wonder is, of course, a member of the bean family, which you probably already knew.
One of the best hints for this is the architecture of the softly hairy leaves: each one is trifoliate, meaning that there are three distinct leaflets.
Many of the herbaceous members of the bean family have such trifoliate leaves … but then there are similarly shaped leaves in a variety of other families (what about poison ivy?), so you have to be a little careful.
But the flowers: they absolutely place this species as a member of the bean family. Take a close look at a single flower, one the many dozens crowded together into the inflorescence, and you will see that there are five petals.
One big one on top is called the “banner” petal (it leans forward), with two pairs of smaller petals up front. You might have to pull things apart to see this, but it will be a good botany lesson.
Long ago some clever and rather romantic phytologist likened this corolla form to that of a butterfly, and so the term “papilionaceous” (which means butterfly-shaped) has been ever since applied.
It's interesting that papilionaceous flowers are only found in the bean family.
This plant is native to Europe, and is widely grown in North America for erosion control along highways. It is perhaps more important economically as an excellent source of food for cattle.
Whether fresh or as dried hay, it's great stuff, full of tasty protein. Plus, it does great things for the soil, as so many members of the bean family are esteemed, capturing nitrogen from the atmosphere into certain organs on its roots, thus enriching the soil.
It is really attractive stuff, and an absolute vernal show-stopper along the interstate or in a big meadow … but it is not native, after all, and some consider it a bit invasive.
I have to throw this in: most people just say “trifoliate” – which means three leaves – when they actually ought to be saying “trifoliolate” – which means three leaflets. Hey, I'm a teacher.
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 email@example.com.
Answer: “Crimson clover,” Trifolium incarnatum