Sunday 19 May 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].

Photo by John Nelson

Photo by John Nelson

[Answer: “Linden,” Tilia europea]


Let’s be bees. Busily buzzing bees. If I were one, this is where I would be.

A couple of years ago I spent a sunny afternoon at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, just wandering around in Marion Square, right in downtown. What a pleasant thing to do: the place full of local Picassos selling their masterpieces, and there were plenty of vendors featuring farm produce (the market was in full swing) as well as plenty of tasty treats. A perfect place for wandering and browsing. Lots of well-mannered dogs, and even a few well-mannered kids, and of course, the botanist in each one of us has to take a look at the plant life.

This is a small tree planted in Marion Square. It is one of about 40 or so different species in the same genus, most of these species occurring in Asia, Europe, and North America. We have a number of native species here in the eastern United States, but they don’t seem to get out west too much. These various species around the world, especially the ones in North America, are often really hard to separate as distinct species, and there has been a good bit of botanical controversy in actually telling them apart. The problem is heightened due to the rampant hybridization known to occur among many of these species, and of course, hybrids are often rather intermediate in various features, relative to their parents. It is one of those plant groups in which the concept of “species” is actually a bit strained; such groups might be better conceived not as distinct species, but as a complex of growth forms all within the same genus. But as I say, there is a good bit of academic controversy on this subject…so let’s get back to the fun stuff.

These various species and hybrids are deciduous, most with dark green leaf blades, sometimes whitened or silvery below. The leaf blades are heart-shaped, and stalked. The trees tend to have dense crowns, and they are excellent for producing shade. (You’ll know of a broad avenue in Berlin featuring thousands of these trees. And, elsewhere in Germany and Europe, it’s commonly seen in the beer gardens, along with the ubiquitous horse-chestnut trees.) These various species have been prized for centuries as a source of medicine, and a variety of tonics, gargles, teas, and tinctures were made from the flowers, and inner bark of the stems. Various extracts continue to be used as cough remedies.

The flowers are delightfully fragrant. They appear in clusters at the end of a slender stalk, which is attached to a narrow bract. Each flower will have five pale yellow or white petals, and a lot of stamens. Standing under the lower branches is a real treat: wonderful fragrance! And what must those bees be thinking? After all, the flowers are loaded with pollen, and sweet nectar. It should be (tee-hee) no surprise that this is one of the best bee trees in the world. (Photo by John Nelson.)

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