2004-12-03 / Beauty in the Backyard

The original mystery plant

Photo by Linda Lee
Photo by Linda Lee Dr. John Nelson

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

Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year, it seems. Here’s a botanical reminder.

This is a native woody vine, common in all of our coastal plain counties. It may be found from New Jersey south to Florida and then to eastern Texas. It really likes its feet wet and is quite at home in wetlands, especially swampy places. A good place to see it locally would be at Colleton State Park along the Edisto River. I spent a good bit of time there this past summer, and it features a beautiful cypress–gum swamp that is quite diverse.

Edelweiss, Leontopodium alpinum
Edelweiss, Leontopodium alpinum Our late season mystery plant has a number of very close viny relatives all of which are evergreen and usually have sharp thorns. Unlike its relatives, it is completely deciduous, losing all it leaves by winter. It also lacks thorns. The flowers are pale yellow and produced in the late spring. Green, spherical berries follow the blooms, and as they ripen the berries become brilliant, glossy red. When one of these vines produces a big crop of fruit it is quite a show. Because the vines climb into adjacent shrubs and trees, the berries are sometimes mistaken for those of a holly. These berries taste pretty awful (at least to me), but they are eaten by wildlife and waterfowl.

This species was named for Thomas Walter, an Englishman who immigrated to SC before the Revolutionary War. Walter lived in a plantation along the Santee River not far from the old canal that was designed to connect the Santee with the Cooper. He is of considerable importance as a southern botanist, for in 1788, his epic Flora Caroliniana was published in which he described all the known plants of SC. It represented the first major botanical treatment of American plants.

Answer to last week’s mystery plant

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