Mystery Plant! #719

John Nelson

Posted 4/25/23

By John Nelson

(Photo by John Nelson.)
(Photo by John Nelson.)

The following story is true. (Or make that “stories”.)

There was a botanist named Henry Oosting who was born in 1903. Upon acquiring his PhD, and at the age of 29, he was hired as an ecologist within the botany department at Duke University. Oosting was hired by the Department Chairman, who was named Hugo Blomquist. (It turns out that among Blomquist’s many doctoral students was a person named Wade T. Batson, Jr…who ended up being hired as the botanist at the University of South Carolina, here in Columbia, and where I was an undergraduate, lo these many years ago, as an eager protégé of Batson. So there’s a bit of botanical history, at least from a personally botanical genealogy point of view.) Back to the immediate story, however:

Professor Oosting made quite a name for himself, as he proved to be one of the nation’s foremost ecologists, publishing a series of important scientific works, these still held in high esteem, among these his concepts of  natural “plant communities”. Oosting additionally made a name for himself as a botanist, and he is known for locating a number of truly interesting plant species in unusual habitats. One day in April 1937, as it turns out, he was browsing around in the woods near the Wateree River in present-day Kershaw County, South Carolina, and he located a population of a very unusual Trillium. Oosting’s discovery remained something of a mystery, as nobody could figure out which species he had found.

Some 65 years later, along came one of my colleagues, Dr. L. L. Gaddy, who, during his ramblings, found the very same plant, also along the Wateree. After comparing his plants with the dried specimen collected by Oosting, Gaddy, who is currently one of the South’s most famous botanists, realized that he had relocated the plant which Oosting saw all those years before, still unnamed.  There is a bit more (quite a bit actually) to the story of the research involved with this situation, but Gaddy recognized the plant as undescribed, and he formally named the mysterious Trillium in honor of Oosting. Commemorating a newly described species with the name of a deserving colleague is a very gracious thing to do.

Flash forward to last week: there had been rumors swirling around the midlands here that this “new” Trillium had been located in the adjoining river system, that of the Congaree. So ensued  something of a war-party of botanists who ventured out to the beautiful floodplain of the Congaree in nearby Calhoun County. Indeed, the rumors were true: the new Trillium was doing quite well, appearing by the hundreds, with its characteristically “twirling” yellow petals.

Now, it’s been  86 years since Professor Oosting brought this plant to light. It is known to occur in about 4 populations in the whole world, and is centered in one the nation’s smallest states. Do you think that there might be more fascinating adventure botany stories out there, just waiting to come to light? Say YES.

[Answer: “Oosting’s trillium,” Trillium oostingii]

(Photo by John Nelson.)

John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email

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