Mystery Plant brings a touch of green to landscape

  • Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Linda Lee/Special to The Journal Scene This week’s plant has maple-like leaves

We recently flew up to Long island to visit relatives, who live in the Hamptons. It was definitely still spring up there: daffodils everywhere, as well as lots of Bradford pear and serviceberry in full bloom. Quite a change when we got back to central South Carolina, where we’ve basically entered into early summer. It’s not really hot yet, but it’s warming up fast!

Anyone visiting the woods and forests here in the East will be struck by just how green everything seems to be getting. Green is the color of leaves — usually — rather than flowers. In plants, the color green bespeaks the process of photosynthesis, plants’ food-making capability made possible only with the green pigment, chlorophyll.

Our Mystery Plant seems to be almost entirely green. It’s a shrub usually no more than about 6 feet tall, commonly producing underground runners and forming clumps. It may be most notable for its leaves, which look as though they belong on a maple tree.

This shrub is not related to maples, but both groups have their leaves arranged in pairs, so that further confuses matters for young naturalists. On the other hand, this shrub’s flowers are nothing like those found on a maple, and neither are the fruits. Its flowers are tiny and creamy yellow, held together in flat-topped arrangements at the ends of twigs. Its fruits start out green, forming one-seeded, slightly flattened drupes. The drupes become a purple-black, eventually getting a bit wrinkly, and looking something like raisins. They remain on the bush into the winter, when hungry birds and critters seek them out.

Let me back up just a bit, concerning the leaves. Being maple-like, they are palmately lobed, up to about four inches long, with serrated margins, and with three prominent veins originating and branching away from the blade base. In the fall, the foliage often turns a bit yellow, and then reddish or purple, thus offering a handsome show.

This plant has a number of other close relatives in our area, and there are also a number of introduced and related species cultivated for ornament, or as hedges. Some are evergreen.

Our species is fairly common in a variety of woods and forests on high ground, from eastern Canada to Minnesota, and south to Florida. Within the Atlantic states, it is most likely to be seen in the mountains and on the piedmont, but there are several places in our sandhill counties where you can find it in shaded ravines and on bluffs.

John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina.

The Herbarium offers free plant identifications. Visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.

Answer: “Maple-leaf Viburnum,” “Dockmackie,” Viburnum acerifolium.

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