1118 Mystery Plant

The six, fused petals making up the corolla of this Mystery Plant are white and deeply fringed, sometimes rendering an almost hairy, filmy look to the entire bloom.

Here's a few flowers; but 'bout midnight, more:

Cymbeline, Act 4, scene 2. William Shakespeare.

Are you looking for a very strange flower? Well, this one’s for you.

Now the scientific name for this oddball, which comes from Greek, means “hairy flower.” And why not? The six, fused petals making up the corolla are white and deeply fringed, sometimes rendering an almost hairy, filmy look to the entire bloom – the effect is quite striking.

The flowers tend to be either male or female, that is, producing either pollen or ovules. The male and female flowers are found on the same plant, and of course, this is a basic characteristic feature of the very large, diverse group to which our mystery belongs: the cucumber family.

More specifically, our oddity is aligned with gourd-like plants, forming vigorous, high-climbing vines, grabbing onto things with their slinky-like tendrils. The quote from Shakespeare above references night-blooming flowers, a phenomenon which characterize many members of the cucumber family (Cucurbitaceae), including gourds.

Gourds have flowers that are generally open “for business” in the evening or night, often featuring white petals and some fragrance, likely attractive to moths, and whose fruits are usually bitter at maturity. Otherwise, many “non-gourd” members of the family are more akin to squashes, pumpkins and zucchini, which tend to have yellow flowers that open during the daytime, get visited by bees, and whose fruits are tasty and non-bitter when mature.

Our Mystery Plant is one species of several in a genus which is native to southern Asia and over to western Australia. It is a tender annual, not tolerating any frost, but is actually easy to grow here in the U.S., when you can find the seeds. Seeds are best started two or three in a small pot, with the strongest seedling retained and planted in the ground. In beds and given plenty of sun and water, it makes a nice summer screen once it gets going.

The flower in the photo is on a plant growing in the marvelous greenhouses at the botanical garden in Munich, Germany, definitely worth a visit. The photographer, Boris Schlumpberger, was a recent post-doctoral student here at USC, and he tells me that their plants actually became a bit weedy and ended up being a pest. Grown outdoors in a garden, you might figure they behave a bit better.

[Answer: “Snake gourd,” Trichosanthes anguina]

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.