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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Answer: “Seaside goldenrod,” Solidago sempervirens]
Autumn: time to go to the beach! The sun isn’t as brutal as it tends to be in the summer, and it finally has started cooling off. Our Atlantic and Gulf Coast beaches are fantastic for a holiday: so many things to do and see, and don’t forget to take along your wildflower guide.
Our Mystery Plant is a North American native species. It is a very hardy perennial that comes up from a rhizome and produces a cluster of long-lasting, nearly evergreen leaves, long and pointy down at the base of the plant. When it’s time to bloom…as in now…the plant sends up a smooth stem with plenty of alternating leaves. The leaves are pointy and sword-shaped, and they tend to be rather thick and fleshy, and hairless. (The stem and leaves up where the flowers are might be a bit hairy, but are still mostly smooth.) The flowers are produced in an ascending panicle with a good many branches. The flowers come in heads, each hard surrounded by a series of outer, greenish bracts. (Art this point you are probably remembering that this plant must be a member of the sunflower family, which is true. Recall that in this enormous plant family, the tiny flowers are always clustered into little heads, or capitula.) Both ray flowers (strap-shaped) and disk flowers (tubular) will be present in each head, and the corolla of each type will be brilliant yellow. The combination of bright green and bright yellow is wonderful to see.
Back to the beach, though. Our Mystery Plant loves the beaches from New England all down the Atlantic coast, the Gulf Coast, and the beaches of eastern Mexico. It is at home on dune lines as well as swales and flats some distance away from the beach itself. This species is well-adapted for a “maritime” habitat, with its thick, fleshy leaves (useful against sand- and salt-spray) and its ability to tolerate saline soils. It isn’t entirely limited to places right at the coast, and can be seen in naturally occurring populations some distance inland. But not too far away.
This species is but one of many Southeastern plants that belong to a very large genus…that is, a group of related species. These large genera are often easy to recognize at the level of “genus”, but the constituent species may be really hard to tell apart, without a very close look. (Other examples of large genera in the Southeast would include asters and sunflowers.) Our Mystery Plant is relatively easy to distinguish from its relatives, though, with its tall stature, smooth stems and foliage, and coastal or maritime habitat.
There are several reasons why this native species might be a good choice for a garden, especially if you live near the coast. Beside its attractiveness and lack of pests, it is very hardy, coming back regularly. And, it is a prized source of nectar for both bees and a variety of butterflies. (Photo by Linda Lee.)