Columbia Star

1963        Celebrating 60 Years      2023

The Original Mystery Plant

Photo by John Nelson

Photo by John Nelson

I’ve been pretty good about riding my bike to work this past year. After all, it’s only 18 minutes to my office, and winds through a number of charming, tree–filled neighborhoods. Plenty of gardens, too. Very recently my morning journeys have featured the common drone of leaf–blowers, as that season is upon us.

Piles and piles of leaves — they seem to move from one side of a street to the other, on their own. Leaf–blowers, although immediately efficient, strike me as an auditory and olfactory blight on the land. Whatever happened to the charming hrisk-hrisk of a rake?

Our mystery plant is a tree, native to the eastern states, from the lower end of Long Island all the way to the Florida panhandle, west to Texas and Oklahoma, and then north into the Mississippi River valley, to southern Illinois. It is primarily considered a coastal plain species, but may as well be seen at times in the piedmont.

This tree loves damp bottomland swamps, and has its original homes along natural levees of river swamps, as well as the flooded terraces behind them.

Interestingly, this species behaves as something of a weed, and readily occupies high ground sites, especially those that have been somewhat disturbed. Thus, abandoned agricultural fields of the coastal south frequently include this species.

Its leaves are narrow, very smooth and pointed, somewhat resembling those of a willow. In the spring and early summer, the tip of each leaf bears a small but obvious short bristle. By the end of the fall, though, this bristle has generally worn away and disappeared.

The plants are completely deciduous, absolutely losing every single leaf, and relatively quickly as autumn arrives. Individual trees growing in open places may form spectacularly rounded crowns, and for this reason, this is commonly planted in parks and along streets, providing much-appreciated shade in the summer.

These are potentially very large trees, in fact, sometimes up to 100′ tall. The bark of older trees is commonly grayish and fairly smooth, or shallowly grooved and channeled. The trees are valuable as a source of lumber, as well as pulpwood.

This species is exceptional as an acorn-producer. Mature trees, that is, 20 (or so) years old (and older) commonly produce heavy acorn crops each autumn. The acorns are relatively small, as acorns go, about half an inch wide, each equipped with a shallow cap. After the acorns fall, they lie dormant until the following spring, and are thus available as a food source all winter long. These acorns are therefore an important food source for ducks, deer, and turkeys, in their native swamp land habitats. In the yards and along the streets of the cities, the acorns are cherished by blue jays and various woodpeckers. And squirrels. Answer to this week’s mystery plant

Willow oak, Quercus phellos

Dr. John Nelson is the curator of the USC Herbarium. To learn more about the Herbarium, call 777-8196. The department also offers free plant identification.

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