Hopefully over the recent winter holidays you found some time to take a few walks outside. (It’s a good habit, you know.) Perhaps you’ve even been able to involve yourself in what could affectionately be termed a “botany walk.”
There is certainly every reason to enjoy nature during the cold winter months down here in the South. Although there may not be many flowers to look at, there are plenty of examples of fascinating natural features and interactions around us, many that continue when it has become colder. Besides, all those gaudy flowers can be something of a distraction, don’t you think?
Our Mystery Plant is a shrub without any flowers right now. It is an evergreen species, and you can see it in plenty of wetland habitats, mostly on the coastal plain. It occurs as a true endemic to the Southeast, known from southeastern Virginia into northern Florida, and west to Louisiana.
This is a plant that really likes it damp. It is usually associated with floodplain forests of blackwater rivers, but can also be found along seepage bluffs. This species loves shade and seems to enjoy a dense canopy overhead. It has a very close relative that occurs along streams and creeks in the Appalachian mountains, but whose leaves are narrower, more pointy and with a slightly longer leaf-stalk. Otherwise, the two species are hard to tell apart.
One of the first things you’ll notice about our plant is that it is indeed a very low shrub, scarcely (if ever) getting much higher than a coon dog’s tail. Its stems are spreading and arching, commonly leaning over nearly to the ground. The handsome leaves alternate up the stem, each one tear-drop shaped with margins equipped with plenty of small, sharp teeth.
We botanists like to use the term “coriaceus” for these leaves, which means that they are tough and leathery. The upper leaf surface is dark green and glossy, while the lower leaf surface is much paler. At this time of year, you are likely to see its dried, brown capsules held in elongated clusters along the stem in a leaf axil. In the early summer, beautiful ivory-white flowers are present. These flowers are very sweetly fragrant, each one forming an urn-shaped corolla made up of five fused petals.
This plant has an interesting scientific name. Its genus name was first (and officially) used in 1834. The botanist who came up with this genus name was very interested in Greek mythology, and he used the name of a mythological princess who ran into some problems in her social life and, because of her perceived transgressions, was transformed into a shrub. Talk about a metamorphosis.
The common name of this species is derived from observations by hunters. It seems deer are fond of leading pesky, pursuing hound dogs into thickets of this plant. The crowded stems are hard to get through, and sometimes Ol’ Blue gets stuck.
(Answer: “Coastal doghobble,” Leucothoe axillaris)