Tuesday 21 Jan 2020

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

[Answer: “Swamp mallow,” Hibiscus moscheutos]:

SI Exif

SI Exif


Flowers, of course, come in quite an assortment of sizes. The smallest flowers of any plant you are likely to see probably belong to the tiny, floating duckweeds. And the largest, at least in North America, must surely belong to various species of Magnolia. But what wildflower has the biggest bloom? Could it be this one?

It’s a native species that is common from New England and Ontario south to Florida, and well into the Midwest and Texas. Technically, it is an herbaceous plant, but it comes up from a massive root system, and it looks like a shrub, usually, with branching stalks that can be up to 8 feet tall. It really likes sunny, wet places, and you will see it in marshes, ditches, damp meadows, and along open, wet power lines. (Because of the droughts that we are experiencing this season, 2015 might not be the best year for it.)

The flowers may be fully 8″ across, when fully opened–usually about mid-day when it’s bright. The broad leaves are dark green above, and whitish or gray beneath. Each flower is on a long stalk, and each stalk bears a small leaf. The color of the flowers is variable among populations, but is most often white: the petals may be milky white to creamy, or even pale yellowish. (Rarely, there will be plants have pink petals.) Whatever their shade, each of the five petals bears a striking ruby-red blotch at its base. When the open flower is viewed from the front, we are presented with a very conspicuous visual display that we call an “eye.” (This eye acts as something of a target, and is probably attractive to visiting hummingbirds.) This species blooms over a long period, and is one of our “late summer” species. Toward autumn, the flowers are replaced with drying capsules, these splitting open and releasing seeds, each seed dark brown, about the size of a large BB.

Our plant is a member of the family “Malvaceae,” and is thus related to cotton, okra, and garden hollyhocks. (There are a lot of weedy species in this family too.) In this family, the pollen-bearing stamens of a single flower are characteristically fused into a hollow column which surrounds the pistil. The end of the pistil branches into a number of receptive stigmas, usually five.

The roots of this plant, or at least some of its close relatives, have long been known as a source of a sweet gum. An old-timey (very old-timey) confection used to be made from boiled down roots, which, when mixed with sugar, would yield the earliest form of marshmallows. (Marshmallows that you buy in a store these days are not made this way. They are completely artificial, made of gelatin and sugar. Yuck.)

The scientific name of this species, at first glance, suggests the word “mosquito,” but the plant has nothing to do with the insect, other than commonly living in the same place. Rather, the scientific species name means “musky,” although I haven’t been able to detect much of an odor from the flowers. (Photo by John Nelson.)


  1. Cindy Mujahid says:

    Thanks for that info! Have seen this variety lately along Hwy 70 going towards coast, and wondered what they were. Look a lot like those in my yard!


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