2004-10-08 / Beauty in the Backyard

The original mystery plant

Photo by Linda Lee
Photo by Linda Lee Each week The Columbia Star features an explanation and picture of a

mystery plant given by Dr. John Nelson, the curator of the USC Herbarium. To learn more about the Herbarium, call him at 777-8196. His department also offers free plant identification. www.herbarium.org

There is a popular grass species that is commonly cultivated here in the Southeast, and everybody has seen it. It’s called “Pampas-grass,” and it’s native to South America. It forms large, spreading clumps, and usually stays where it is supposed to. Other introduced species of large, plume–forming grasses are much more aggressive, including the dreadful common reed (Phragmites australis), giant cane (Arundo donax), and zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis), all of which now represent serious problems on our landscapes as invasive species.

Water tupelo, 
Nyssa aquatica 

Water tupelo, Nyssa aquatica We also have a number of native grasses which form prominent plume–like inflorescences. Most of these are perennials, and form clumps. Of our native plume–forming grasses, some of the showiest species reside in the group that we call the “Indian grasses,” and one of these species is featured as this week’s mystery plant.

Our mystery plant is a true lover of the Deep South, found only on the coastal plain from SC over to Louisiana. It is not widespread in the Palmetto State, occurring only in about six counties below Aiken and within the drainage of the Savannah River. It occurs on dry ground and may be found in some abundance in ecosystems which experience periodic fire. It forms thin clumps, with the stalks rising sometimes as high as six feet, then with a prominent plume of bright, shiny brown and gold, hairy spikelets.

In this species, the spikelets are somewhat clustered together on one side of each branchlet. While in bloom (which is now), the tiny, yellow anthers may be seen dangling from each spikelet on a thread–like stalk. This species is attractive enough that it is now accessible in the gardening trade. It can be grown in most sandy soils, and tolerates drought well.

To see this plant in the wild, you might drive to Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve, where it is scattered on high ground. Located in Jasper County, this is a beautiful site, managed for its rare species and exemplary natural ecosystems by the Heritage Trust Program of our Department of Natural Resources. For more information, give them a call at 803-734-3893.

Answer to last week’s mystery plant

Photo by Linda Lee

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