mysteryplant

This plant likes to grow in quiet water but sometimes can be seen at the margins of streams.

Now that it has warmed up a bit, I have been thinking of doing some more aquatic botany. A kayak or canoe is good for studying plants growing in lakes and creeks, but sometimes you just cannot beat putting on some old tennis shoes and wading into an oozy-bottomed pond, the water maybe way up to your waist.

This is no time to be overly concerned with snakes, but a sharp attention paid to any visiting serpents would be a good idea.

The advantage a botanist has in such an approach is that the lower portions of the plants can be studied. You just have to take a deep breath and lean over, carefully feeling around for the lower stem, trying to avoid the little critters and bugs and, when located, tugging away until you can get the roots and rhizome, or whatever else be down there.

Properly prepared herbarium specimens of herbaceous plants always will include the underground parts, and this especially is true for making specimens of aquatic species. Yes, the study of aquatic plants and making specimens of them can indeed be dirty work, but that is why they make soap and water.

Our Mystery Plant is indeed an aquatic species, its massive rhizomes way down in the cool darkness, firmly secured in the mud.

It likes to grow in quiet water but sometimes can be seen at the margins of streams. The rhizome will send up a series of long-stalked leaves, each with a dark green, somewhat heart-shaped or arrowhead-shaped blade.

The blades typically come all the way out of the water, but sometimes remain submersed. Blooming takes place all summer, well into the autumn.

The flowering stalks, also from the rhizome, reach up to the surface, each stalk bearing a single, showy flower. Each flower is equipped with a series of outer sepals, eight or 10 or so, which are green toward the outside but progressively bright buttery-yellow toward the interior.

Technically there are petals, but they are tiny and inconspicuous. It is the sepals that make these flowers bright and attractive. The sepals are curved inward and they do not open up widely, so that the fully matured flower has the look of a yellow and green ping-pong ball.

Each flower has stamens and a single massive pistil, which eventually forms a dark green, sort of jug-shaped berry-like fruit. A number of seeds will be present in each berry.

This species has about 12 or so relatives, all in the same genus, which occur in North America, Europe and Asia. It is a common component in many freshwater habitats in all of the Southeastern states, reaching as far north as lower New England, and getting into much of Texas as well.

I often have heard people refer to these plants as a yellow form of our regular water lily. But our water lily, which is Nymphaea odorata, has white petals and is quite fragrant in bloom. There are other rather profound floral differences, too, but no need getting into all that now.

(Answer: “Spatter-dock,” “Cow-lily,” Nuphar advena)

John Nelson is the retired 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 email johnbnelson@sc.rr.com.

John Nelson is the retired 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 email johnbnelson@sc.rr.com.