Mystery Plant

Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year, it seems. Here's a botanical reminder.

This is a native woody vine, common in all of our coastal plain counties. It may be found from New Jersey south to Florida and then to eastern Texas. It really likes its feet wet, and is quite at home in wetlands, especially swampy places. (A good place to see it locally would be at Colleton State Park, along the Edisto River.  I spent a good bit of time there this past summer, and it features a beautiful cypress-gum swamp that is quite diverse.)

Our late season mystery plant has a number of very close viny relatives, all of which are evergreen, and usually with sharp thorns. Unlike its relatives, though, it is completely deciduous, losing all it leaves by winter. It also lacks thorns. The flowers are pale yellow, produced in the late spring. Green, spherical berries follow the blooms, and as they ripen, the berries become brilliant, glossy red. When one of these vines produces a big crop of fruit, it is quite a show. Because the vines climb into adjacent shrubs and trees, the berries are sometimes mistaken for those of a holly. These berries taste pretty awful (at least to me), but they are eaten by wildlife and waterfowl.

This species was named for Thomas Walter, an Englishman who immigrated to South Carolina before the Revolutionary War. Walter lived in a plantation along the Santee River, not far from the old canal that was designed to connect the Santee with the Cooper. He is of considerable importance as a southern botanist, for in 1788, his epic "Flora Caroliniana" was published, in which he described all the known plants of South Carolina, and which represented the first major botanical treatment of American plants.

"Coral catbrier," Smilax walteri

John Nelson is the curator of the 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.