Mystery Plant! #720

John Nelson

Posted 5/2/23

By John Nelson

(Photo by Keith Bradley.)

Where exactly is the “enchanted forest” that you sometimes hear about? I’ve come to realize that for me, it was that little patch of woods right next door when I was growing up. But you’ve probably been in an enchanted forest, too. 

Enchanted forests come in a wide variety of sizes, and some of the most enchanted examples can be very tiny. All they need is a tree or two, maybe a few shrubs, some ground cover, and perhaps some native wildflowers. Oh yes, a bird passing through helps. So does a frog, or a toad. Of course, grand vistas featuring waterfalls and majestic peaks, along with lots of wildlife and rare plants helps make a great enchanted forest. Again, though: some of the most magically enchanted woods are postage-stamp sized patches of real estate, without an exhaustive list of unusual species present. Of course, part of the enchantment of the forest comes from within our heads: you need to become a part of your forest, even if for just a few moments, listening carefully to its sounds, taking in the smells, and paying attention to what really makes it a place separate from the everyday urbanized existence from which we too often can’t seem to escape. It’s the little things that count, the little aspects of nature that have their own story to tell, and which collectively offer us something unique.

Now here is a little herb that offers a kind of quiet, enchanted magic. It’s a resident of quiet, rich coves in the mountains, growing in the East from southern Ontario down to the mountains of Georgia. The stems arch over a bit, and reveal several oval leaves, each one softly fuzzy, and with three delicate, pale nerves. The flowers are pale greenish-yellow–an odd shade for a flower!–and they tend to dangle. Six tepals are present…technically, there are 3 sepals and 3 petals, but they look so much alike that we can’t really tell them apart. (So we call them “tepals”.) Each flower will eventually produce a smooth, shiny red berry later on in the summer.

This magic little plant is in full bloom now. Imagine the scene as the sun starts going down in a quiet cove: the white pines and hemlocks, farther up on the ridges, give quiet sighs as the light glimmers. In the gathering shade of the yellow poplars and basswood, our little bell-like flowers start to glow with a delicate moonbeam kind of presence, sharing the twinkling herb-scape with trilliums, Jacob’s-ladder, wild phlox, and golden alexanders. Listen carefully for the sleepy wood thrush, and also his shy friend, the nighthawk, starting to wake up. Watch for the first lightning-bugs to start their tentative flights.

But maybe you can’t visit THIS particular enchanted forest. Is there one in your backyard, just for you? Maybe just a small little corner with a few crickets, some late-spring dogwoods and azaleas, and perhaps a twittering swift, or a drowsy thrasher getting ready for sleepy-time. Enchanting

[Answer: : “Yellow mandarin,” Prosartes lanuginosa]


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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