Mystery Plant

  • Thursday, October 4, 2012

When in full bloom and in large patches, this mystery plant makes a spectacular show.

This one loves a dry, hardscrabble roadside, below a stop sign or a traffic marker, or maybe the open edge of a gravelly parking lot. You get the idea. Or, you might see it in what we call an “overgrazed” pasture: horses and cows tend to avoid it, so the plants can go crazy, without too much danger of being munched on. The plants have a bitter or acrid taste, so it makes sense that livestock don't care for it very much. In fact, some say that cows which have eaten this plant will produce bitter milk. (You can try chewing on this plant to see what it tastes like…but beware: it IS slightly toxic!) The leaves are narrow, thin and needle-like. They are fragrant, when crushed, in a sort of sweetly medicinal, camphor-like way, but many people will say that they are just plain stinky. As the plants get older (and taller), they tend to lose their lower leaves, which may remain attached to the stem for a while, turning brown. Most people would probably think that such a plant is a bit shabby-looking.
Perhaps this species makes up for its bitterness by being beautiful. When in full bloom and in large patches, the plants make a spectacular show. Of course, this is another member of the sunflower family, and up close, you can see the arrangement of tiny flowers, congested into heads at the ends of the branches. A single head will have several dozen inconspicuous yellow disk flowers on a rounded or “globose” receptacle, something like a tiny tennis ball. (You will recall that other composites, such as coneflowers, have a sort of conical receptacle. Most other members of the sunflower family have a receptacle that is quite flat.) Eight or nine bright yellow, showy ray flowers form a ring around the outside of the “tennis ball”. These rays are notched, or lobed, on their ends. The plants can get as tall as 2' or so, although sometimes they will bloom when just a few inches high, especially if growing in rough terrain, or if they get mowed a lot. This species is native to the Southeast, and extends north to New England, and west through Missouri and Texas. In South Carolina, it occurs in every county, but is most common in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont. This species has a number of cousins in the same genus.
This species is a real survivor, and can grow in any sandy or gravelly place, blooming like mad during the hottest and driest parts of the summer. You can probably find a few surviving flower heads even in the middle of winter. It would probably look great on a patio, grown in pots and given lots of fetilizer. Has anyone ever tried it? Why not?!  

[Answer:   "Bitterweed," "Sneezeweed," Helenium amarum

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

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