Friday 06 Dec 2019

Mystery Plant by Guest Writer John Nelson

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 or call 803-777-8196, or email [email protected].

Lithospermum caroliniense1[Answer: “Hairy puccoon,” Lithospermum caroliniense


The forget-me-not family contains about 2,000 different species found nearly worldwide. In addition to “forget-me-not,” many species are popular garden plants and herbs, such as comfrey and borage, and still others are best known as weeds, such as the prickly and brightly flowered “Viper’s bugloss,” commonly seen in the Appalachians and farther north in New England. Those of you who are students of wildflowers here in the Southeast will probably know the lovely hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum virginianum), with its pink flowers and fuzzy foliage, blooming now, and also Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica), which will be blooming in a few weeks. Forget-me-nots and their relatives have their flowers in somewhat specialized branches that tend to be coiled, at least when blooming first starts. As the flowering season continues, these stalks tend to straighten themselves out, as the flowers age. Flower color in most of these species is white, blue, or pink. And many of these species have plenty of hairs on the stems and leaves. Sometimes, these hairs can be a bit irritating, depending on the species at hand. (Ok, that’s a pun.) One more thing about the flower: with a lot of these species, the young, first-opened flowers will be one color (commonly pink), and then change to a different color (commonly blue) after they’ve been open for a while. There is some indication that this is useful for signaling to potential pollinators not to waste too much time with the old flowers, but rather concentrate on the young ones, which offer more pollen and nectar.

This week’s Mystery Plant is a member of the forget-me-not family, but its flowers are brilliant yellow…a very warm, golden shade of yellow which is unmistakable. Sort of like bright, glowing egg-yolk yellow. Because of this, the plants are quite conspicuous when in bloom. The plants are up to about 3 feet tall, and very deeply rooted. The tough, woody rootstocks tend to produce a purplish juice that will stain, and the plants have been used as a dye source. (The common name of this plant comes from a native-American word meaning “dye.”) The stems are very coarsely hairy. Following blooming, the golden corollas fall away, and glistening, ivory-white nutlets remain, each containing a single seed.

You might think that if you ever saw this stuff in full bloom, you would remember it. It’s true: with its showy yellow flowers, nothing else blooming now really looks like it. But the plants are usually not very abundant whenever they do occur. All that said, this species is actually very widely distributed in North America, occurring from eastern Canada as far west as Montana, then south to the Gulf Coast. Here in South Carolina, it grows on deep, dry sands in the lower half of the state, sometimes seen along the roadside as brilliant golden flashes of color. This is another one of our natives that cannot be transplanted well at all, so you shouldn’t try digging it up. Mother Nature will thank you! (Photo by Linda Lee.)

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