Mystery Plant! #725

John Nelson

Posted 6/1/23

By John Nelson

(Photo by Alan Cressler.)

One of the neatest things about being a botanist is that there is always a surprise, right around the corner. We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that everything around us is hum-drum and uninteresting, and then boom. Something really wonderful, or otherwise remarkable. Why, just the other day I was browsing around in a ditch near Walterboro, down in our low-country, and I found a plant new to South Carolina, a humble little thing in the carrot family called Bowlesia incana (I don’t even think it has a common name. Sorry.) Although Bowlesia won’t win any beauty contests, and probably will never provide a cure for cancer (but you never know ‘til you investigate it), it is important to know that this species now has at least a toe-hold in the state, and that we might expect it to become more common.

This week’s Mystery Plant is also remarkable. Although it is a native species, it is not commonly seen…and it is surely one of the prettiest wildflowers of the Southeast. This plant is a wild orchid, and it is “wild,” in more than one way. This species has a slender, upright stem bearing a number of smooth, strap-shaped leaves. A number of flowers are loosely arranged along the upper end of the flowering stalk. The flowers tend to be somewhat greenish, or even a bit yellowish, or snowy white. As with all orchids, there are three sepals, and three petals. The two uppermost petals are small and squatty, but the lowermost petal is modified into what botanists call a “lip.” In this case, the lip is quite distinctive, and it rather easily differentiates this species from its relatives. This marvelous lip is divided into three portions, or segments, and each segment is finely divided into numerous threadlike divisions. A dramatic sort of raggedy-fringed effect is produced. At the base of the flower is a very slender tube called a “spur,” an inch or so long, and projecting backward. If pollination occurs successfully, a small capsule will develop from the ovary, eventually producing a very large number of very small seeds. (This is a hallmark characteristic of all orchids.)

Our little forest friend is fairly widespread here in the Southeast and indeed, is known from nearly all of eastern North America. It is fond of wet woods, often growing with other species, and frequently seen in places featuring a lot of Sphagnum moss. Despite its wide distribution, however, this species is not very common anywhere, and its populations usually consist of fairly small numbers of individual plants. This plant may indeed deserve attention as a species “of concern”: unfortunately, many orchid species are declining in population numbers due in large part to habitat loss, but also, I am chagrined to say, by overzealous collection by botanists and orchid-growers. The appreciation and study of orchids is a fascinating aspect of botany, and no matter where you live, there are bound to be local species to learn about. (For plenty of information on a number of Southeastern orchids, consider “Wild Orchids of South Carolina” by J. A. Fowler, published in 2005 by the USC Press.)

[Answer: “Ragged fringed-orchid,” Platanthera lacera]

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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