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This plant comes into its own at the end of summer

1110318mysteryplant.JPG

This plant is very closely related to various southeastern species which are indeed native to our area, and go by the name of “Atamasco,” or “zephyr lily.”

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Saturday, November 10, 2018

The year is old, the birds are flown.

And yet the world, in its distress,

Displays a certain loveliness —

 — John Updike, from “A Child’s Calendar”

Autumn has once again snuck up upon us, as it always does.

Autumn is known mostly as a time of cooling temperatures, and falling, colorful leaves. (And hurricanes, I fear.) Shorter day lengths (since June 21) have had plenty of biological ramifications on the plants (and animals) around us. In the Southeast, one can hardly go through the fall without marveling at the display of asters and goldenrods, besides the change of leaf color. (The change of color in fall leaves is often thought to be a result of cool temperatures, or even frost. However, the marvelous fall color of deciduous trees in the upcountry of the Smoky Mountains, and elsewhere in the Appalachians, begins well before frost has occurred.)

Here is a plant that has come into its own, since the tail-end of summer. It is often seen along the Atlantic coast, where it has naturalized. My photograph is from Florence County, South Carolina, where I saw it very recently. It is not a native plant here in the South. It is actually from South America, mostly Argentina and Uruguay, but it has been grown as a garden plant for at least a couple hundred years, both in the United States and in Europe. In our area, from North Carolina down through Texas, it has naturalized from original garden plantings, and now behaves as something of a native species. (“Naturalized” species are often quite a problem now, being introduced from one place, and then acting as a regular part of the landscape. Japanese honeysuckle, kudzu, and beach vitex are good examples, unfortunately.)

Our Mystery Plant remains a popular garden plant, and it is easy to grow. It is especially good as a rock garden addition. Where it has naturalized, in the Southeast, it doesn’t seem to pose an invasive problem, so much as a delightful and autumnal curiosity, often on roadsides, ditch edges, or at old home sites.

It grows from a bulb, as do many of its relatives (such as amaryllis and hurricane lily). Each plant will produce a shock of slick, bright green, narrow leaves, with the leafless flowering stems up to about 6” high. The sepals and petals (three each) make up the perianth, which is brilliant white (the scientific species name alludes to this…and brings to mind “clear,” “brilliant,” and “innocent.”)

It is very closely related to various southeastern species which are indeed native to our area, and go by the name of “Atamasco,” or “zephyr lily.” These native species bloom in the spring, though.

(Answer: “Autumn fairy lily”, Zephyranthes candida)

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 nelson@sc.edu.

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