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].

commeln mnch[Answer: “Dayflower,” “Whitemouth dayflower,” Commelina erecta


Not a morning person? Here’s a plant that loves the morning.

You can see this species just about anywhere in the eastern USA, from Pennsylvania to Florida, over to Texas, into the Midwestern states, and well into Latin America. It is frequently seen on field margins, roadsides and in ditches, and it seems to like sandy places.

This is a native American species, and a member of the largely tropical “spiderwort” family, a family which has given us plenty of showy ornamental garden and patio plants…and weeds.

Our Mystery Plant has about 100 or so close relatives, that is, in the same genus. In addition to this one, there are probably some other species that might occur in your area. This one is a perennial, and it comes up from a cluster of thick roots. The stems are a bit fleshy and jointed, somewhat erect, and the plants will form patches. The leaves are variable from one population to another, sometimes very skinny, sometimes broader, but always sharp-pointed, each one at its base forming a thin, tight sheath around the stem. Up to a dozen or so flowers are produced inside a protective, boat-shaped bract, but within this bract, only one flower will open at a time. Each open flower has two large, flamboyant petals that are sky-blue. A small, white, inconspicuous third petal is found below and between the blue ones. Six stamens are present, and in these flowers, the three upper ones are sterile, not producing pollen, but probably useful in attracting pollinators, often bees. The plants, in sufficient numbers, are spectacular when in bloom. You’ll see the open flowers during the morning of a clear, summer day: they pout dejectedly if it’s cloudy or raining. Truly, each flower has its “moment” only in the morning sun, for by the hot afternoon, the flowers have shriveled up to a gooey nothingness, to be replaced the next morning by new, fresh ones. Of course, the old flowers will produce a seed pod (a “capsule”) if pollination has gone well, and 3 little seeds will develop in each one.

The arrangement and appearance of the three petals has attracted plenty of attention from botanists. Indeed, Carl Linnaeus, the “father” of plant taxonomy, was quite taken by these flowers. He likened the two upper petals, as conspicuous as they are, to two prominent Dutch botanists of the 17th century, who worked in Amsterdam. These two botanists, Johannes and Caspar Commelijn, were commemorated by Linnaeus when the plant’s genus name was created. And the pale, unassuming, white petal? Tradition has it that there was a third member of the Commelijn family, but that evidently, Linnaeus didn’t think he was much of a botanist. My theory? Linnaeus knew this fellow was not a morning person. (Photo by John Nelson.)

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