If you’re a flatlander like me, it might be quite a while between your time at home and your visits to the beautiful Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia.
I am, in fact, a big fan of eastern West Virginia: a fantastic place in the summer for natural history, and more especially botany. I fell in love with the dark forests of this part of the country several years ago, led there my inveterate fellow-botanist and banjo champion, Bernie Cyrus.
One of our field trips was within the deep confines of Pocahontas County, about this time of year. Way on top of Back Allegheny, deep inside the Monogahela National Forest, that’s where we were headed.
It was one of my greatest botanical adventures ever: a day of unusual plants (for me), mountain vistas and a magnificent beaver pond, along with associated little bogs, drippy places and cliffs.
Yellowthroats and parula warblers were singing high in the oaks, and a gravelly creek gurgled nearby.
Bernie wanted to show me something that I had never seen, so we wandered downstream into a big patch of ramps (Allium tricoccum) in late bloom, already starting to ripen their little green capsules. Well, I know what ramps are, I protested. Then he revealed his mysterious herb, down there in the shade.
It looked like a hairy Mayapple, with two sort of rounded, jagged, toothsome leaves at the top of the stem. There were dozens of these plants in a thick patch there in the dappled light.
The most conspicuous part of this scenery was a large, juicy, brilliant red raspberry-like fruit atop the herb’s main stem. No raspberry this.
This herbaceous species is widespread from New England down to Alabama, and west about as far as Missouri and Kansas.
It likes deep, shady woods, and in the East is commonly seen at relatively high elevations.
The plants arise from tough, slender rhizomes which are bright yellow internally. Blooming in the spring, each plant will produce one flower, about 2 inches across, featuring lots of whitish stamens and pistils. No petals.
It’s an odd little flower: delicate and sort of “drab,” I think. But the fruit is a real show-stopper.
This plant is filled with various peculiar compounds which give it a quite bitter taste.
For many, many years, this plant was used as a medicinal herb, and has ended up one of the most important North American native species in this regard.
It turns out, however, that very little evidence supports claims of its medical efficacy. Nevertheless, a tremendous legacy has developed around its use, which has, over the years, led to over-collection and an apparent (and serious) decrease in the number of known natural populations.
This might strike you as similar to the scenario involving ginseng, and there are some parallels. Ginseng and our Mystery Plant are completely unrelated species.
If you are a user of over-the-counter preparations of this plant for medicinal use, be sure that what you are buying comes from sustainable, commercial plantings and not from wild-dug plants.
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.