Mystery PlantSpecies a common native wildflower
Winter is here. Not according to the calendar, of course, but it arrived this past week in my back yard, bringing plenty of beautiful frost and rendering a frozen sweet-potato vine. For the tenderest of plants, the first frost is a lethal event, and sure enough, we had plenty of blackened leaves and flopped over flowers, victims of this sudden hiemalian season. Now if truth be known, winter is not my favorite time of year: I’d much rather put up with the languid sultriness of central South Carolina in July, but I guess that change can be good. And I’ll have to admit that going outside and not having any gnats to blow away is a pleasant change.
Of course, there are plenty of plants that can take the hardest winters in stride. During the cold months, it’s the evergreen species that seem to be the most conspicuous on the landscape. When you think about it, “evergreen-ness” in plants is largely a result of various aspects of their architecture. (By the way, the Latin word for something that is evergreen is “sempervirens”, meaning “always green,” of course.) Our native broad-leaved evergreen plants, here in the Southeast, commonly have thickened leaves, often tough and leathery, and frequently equipped with a waxy layer on both upper and lower leaf surfaces. The common American holly fits this bill quite well, but there are also some herbaceous plants, too. This is one of them.
It is one of the most common native wildflower species in the East, featured in a variety of woodland habitats from upper New England well into the upper Midwest, then south to Georgia and the Florida panhandle. It’s a low little herb, not more than half a foot tall. It has tough little stems, and extensive underground growth, from rhizomes.
The foliage is unmistakable. Upright stems will sport a number of lance-shaped or elliptic leaves, prominently toothed on the margins, and a deep, lustrous green. The leaves are beautifully marbled or streaked with white along the midvein and the major secondary veins of the blade. These leaves are probably the most memorable thing about the plant, and of course, they are visible all year long.
This is a flowering species, though. In the early summer, flowering branches will have risen a few inches above the foliage. Each of the few leafless stalks will terminate in a single, fragrant flower. Each flower has five roundish, waxy-white petals, along with 10 hairy little stamens. The pistil is quite short and stumpy. After the flowers fade, the fruits develop. These fruits are rather drab, I think...represented by round capsules. Each capsule consists of five compartments, each then containing a number of tiny seeds. The capsules start out sort of brown, but as winter goes on, they eventually turn gray and crack open, and release their seeds.
Such a humble little plant, and one that seems to be happy in the cold, bravely sempervirent, and advertising its vitality with handsome green foliage.
Maybe that’s why its genus name means “winter-loving.”
[Answer: “Pipsissewa,” “Spotted wintergreen,” Chimaphila maculata]
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 email@example.com.