Mystery plant

  • Thursday, October 3, 2013

John Nelson A member of the sunflower family, this plant makes lots of small flowers and lots of pollen.

… a salt and sorry rheum offends me;

Lend me thy handkerchief.

OTHELLO, the Moor of Venice

Act 3, Scene 4

Indeed, it is autumn, that time of year, that turning of the spheres, that setting of the solstices, when botanists do venture into hinterlands and by-ways, puzzling over phytological wonders and making specimens thereof. Every year I put my boots on, grab my plant press, carry along a bottle of tea and a can of sardines for a day in the field … and for some reason I always forget to take my morning sneeze-pill. Oh, a botanist in the woods on a beautiful, clear autumn day, finding himself surrounded by a hundred species, all madly pouring pollen into the air. Yes, friends, it is true: I am a botanist who suffers from hay-fever. It is cosmic justice in the fall, don’t you think? I’ve been reduced to a sneezing, dripping hulk with a soggy handkerchief. It takes something away from the enjoyment of nature and being a scientist when your eyes have turned itchy and red, and your nose is sore from blowing fountains of spray.

Perhaps next time I will learn to take some antihistamines first thing in the morning.

Thus properly prepared, autumn is surely a wonderful time to be a botanist. These days there are many new plants showing off and strutting their stuff, waiting until the shortening days to bloom. Lots of members of the sunflower family do this, of course. Many of these­ — certainly not all — have evolved a reliance on wind-pollination to get their pollen onto receptive pistils. This process is “pollination.” A pollen grain will contain male gametic cells which, when combined with the “female gametes, achieve “fertilization,” and ultimately a seed. Now, there is considerable room for failure between pollination and successful fertilization. That’s the subject for another story.

Our Mystery Plant is a member of the sunflower family, and it makes LOTS of small flowers, and LOTS of pollen. It is a plant that can get to be up to 5’ tall, with lots of slender branches and narrow, divided leaves. The flowers are quite tiny, with five clustered into a little head. The several thousands of flowers on a single plant are sweetly fragrant, actually (but please don’t make me breathe in any pollen). This species likes to grow mostly in the coastal plain counties of the Southeast, from North Carolina over to Mississippi. This is a native species, and is related to the shower joe-pye weeds, which are also flowering now. The plants can be big and bushy, and I think they are sort of handsome, especially when blooming like crazy. Maybe they would work in your garden. Hey that’s an idea, has anybody come up with a garden devoted to hay-fever species?

Answer: “Dog-fennel,” Eupatorium compositifolium

John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia, SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.

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