Unique blossom attracted to marshes

  • Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Photo Provided A look at this week's Mystery Plant.

Everybody around here is heading to the beach! Are you? Need something to read? Here’s a short novel in 3 short chapters:

Chapter 1

Here we have a glorious member of the hibiscus family...a beautiful herbaceous plant that grows in wet places near the beach, just behind the sand dunes, and in adjacent brackish and fresh-water tidal marshes.

It’s a large herb, sometimes nearly 6 feet tall. If you ever see this blooming, I know you will love it: the triangular leaves are softly fuzzy, with thousands of tiny star-shaped hairs, and the flowers are really charming.

Looks like a sort of Hibiscus, perhaps, with five bright pink (or white) floppy petals, and a long central column of golden-yellow stamens surrounding the style. The fully-open flower is about 4” across, and like most members of the hibiscus family, the blossom only lasts a day.

This is a variable species, occurring commonly along the Atlantic coast, from Texas all the way to Long Island.

Controversy is involved with its classification: some botanists think it is a European species, which just happens to grow in America, too.

Chapter 2

This plant belongs to a genus that is named after Vincenz Kosteletzky, a prominent botanist and physician of 19th Century Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic, of course).

Such commemoration of peoples’ names for plant genera has a wide history. For instance, Shortia is the genus to which the beautiful (and rare) “Oconee -bells” belongs, named after the prominent botanist and physician (another one!), Dr. Charles Short, of Louisville, Kentucky.

Washingtonia is a genus of two palm species which grow in the southwestern USA and northern parts of Mexico.

This commemorative genus, of course, honors George Washington (neither a botanist nor a physician...but he made a pretty darn good President, I think).

The last example is Franklinia, named after Benjamin Franklin...a genus of but one species in the whole, wide world, the rare and mysterious Franklinia altamaha of Georgia. (There are plenty of other examples of plant genera named after people.)

Chapter 3

Let’s finish up this little story, with something about the specimen at hand.

It was collected by Henry W. Ravenel, who resided in the old St. John’s Parish of present-day Berkeley County, South Carolina, some time before the Civil War began.

Ravenel is remembered as one of the South’s most dedicated botanists, perhaps most famous from his studies of fleshy fungi...but he also carefully studied the local vascular flora as well.

His inscription on this specimen indicates that the plant was collected in July (he left off the year) from a “swamp” along the Cooper River, not far from Charleston.

For a specimen that was collected over 150 years ago, it is in remarkably good shape.

(For more information on Ravenel’s collection, please visit our web site at www.herbarium.org)

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 or call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.

Answer: “Seaside mallow,” “Marsh-mallow,” Kosteletzkya pentacarpos.

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