Mystery Plant an aquatic species

  • Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Now that itís warmed up, Iíve 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 canít 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 sharp attention paid to 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 may be down there. Properly prepared herbarium specimens of herbaceous plants will always include the underground (or water) parts, and this is especially true for making specimens of aquatic species.

The study of aquatic plants and making specimens of them can indeed be dirty work, but thatís 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 can be seen sometimes 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 come all the way out of the water, but sometimes remain submersed. Blooming takes place all summer and well into 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, 8 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. Itís the sepals that make these flowers bright and attractive.

The sepals are curved inward and they donít 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 forms a dark green, sort of jug-shaped berry-like fruit. A number of seeds are 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 Southeastern states, reaching as far north as lower New England, and getting into much of Texas as well.

Around here, Iíve sometimes heard people refer to these plants as a yellow sort of form of our regular water lily.

But our water lily, which is Nymphaea odorata, has white petals, and is quite fragrant in bloom.

Answer: ďSpatter-dock,Ē ďCow-lily,Ē Nuphar advena.

John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina. The Herbarium offers free plant identifications. Visit www.herbarium.org, call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.

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