0901.MystyeryPlant

Each flower of this Mystery Plant will have five brilliant red – sometimes pink – petals that overlap each other.

Faithful readers of this little column are probably wondering why okra has never been featured. Well, that’s a good question, since everybody knows something about okra and it’s a very interesting plant. It’s also edible, that is, you can eat its fruits (and the seeds within the fruits). Whenever okra is discussed by Southerners – who are basically the only people who ever discuss okra – there are three kinds of people: those who enjoy it fried and would never consider eating it boiled or steamed, those who like it boiled or steamed and would never consider eating it fried and then those, like me, who love it any way it’s prepared. Which is your group?

Well, this week’s Mystery Plant is not okra, but it is in the same family.

Our Mystery Plant and okra are members of the plant family called Malvaceae, which is commonly called the hibiscus or mallow family. (You could call it the hollyhock family, too, if you wanted.) This is a big family with nearly 5,000 species, its diversity best expressed in warm/tropical places. There are a lot of weedy species in the family. By far, the most important crop that comes from this family is cotton, which is now grown in vast acreages in the United States and which is blooming now. (I saw some the other day during a field trip; the flowers really are beautiful.) Most of the members of the Malvaceae produce a capsule as a fruit “type,” generally containing a lot of seeds, and cracking open to release the seeds.

You’ll find our Mystery Plant in gardens in the South, especially old-timey gardens. It will occasionally be found persisting at an old homesite out in the country somewhere, but it apparently hasn’t started spreading. However, it is native to parts of Texas and northern Mexico and may be encountered in the wild there.

We “inherited” this plant in our backyard, years ago. It’s sort of a soft-stemmed shrub which multiplies itself from the roots, producing green stems and very handsome, fuzzy leaves. Flowers are produced basically all summer long, but the plants seem to reach their flowering peak in the early autumn.

Each flower will have five brilliant red (sometimes pink) petals, overlapping each other. A single style in the very center will branch at its tip into 10 or so red stigmas. There’s no scent associated with the flowers, at least from my experience. Maybe the most interesting thing about the flowers is that the stamens are all fused together into an elongated, skinny tube, through which the style grows, and just below the stigmas will be 20 or so anthers, representing the tips of the fused stamens. This plant is unusual for the family in producing a soft berry as its fruit type.

The best part: this species is a complete magnet for pollinators. Hummingbirds go crazy for it, as do a variety of butterflies. Yesterday in my backyard: two sassy hummers challenged each other over it, while gulf fritillaries and yellow sulfurs fluttered and frolicked.

[Answer: “Turk’s cap”, Malvaviscus drummondii]

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 herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.