Mystery Plant! #740

John Nelson

Posted 9/13/23

By John Nelson

(Photo by John Nelson.)

My plan yesterday was to get up early and prepare for a field trip with one of my former students. It was to be something of a “busman’s holiday”, as we wanted to botanize somewhere, and it didn’t really matter where, as long as we could see a lot of botanical diversity on a nice, early autumn day.

My former student is Mr. Wade Biltoft, who graduated a couple of years ago from South Carolina with his B.S. in Biology, and then his M.S. in Environmental Sciences. Wade has tuned out, I am pleased to say, as a fine botanist, one who has quite the eye for detail in the botanical world. (It’s also a good idea to bring along someone who can pull you out of a ditch if you fall in while botanizing.)

So, Wade showed up in his jeep while it was bright and early: we headed south on something of a whim, plant presses at the ready, and fortified with coffee and some morning carbs to get things going. As usual, botanists typically don’t have to go far to find interesting plant life, and Wade and I ended up, as our first stop, along the placidly-flowing Edisto River (its north fork) not too far south of Columbia. Here’s one of the first botanical delights of the day.

(Photo by John Nelson.)

It’s a tall herb, although it gets a bit woody at the base, with stems sticking up nearly to six feet, sometimes. The leaves are alternate, one at a time, and curiously shaped. Each one tends to be 4-6″ long, and flat at the base, with two sharp lobes pointed away from each other at the bottom. At least one early botanist was impressed by this shape, and likened it to a “halberd”, a medieval weapon on a pole with a two-pronged blade up at the top, good for chopping off heads, or whatever.

This is a plant belonging to the mallow family, which of course gives us okra, Confederate rose, and cotton, as well as a number of weedy species. The flowers of plants in this family have 5 sepals and petals, and the petals are typically large and showy, brightly colored. The many stamens of a flower are fused, interestingly, into a hollow tube, and the style of the ovary pokes all the way through the length of the tube. If you take a close look at one of these flowers, you’ll see five rounded branches at the tip of the style, which will be surrounded by a lot of little stamens attached to their tube.

This species is widespread in the Southeast from Virginia to the Florida panhandle, and also within the Mississippi Valley. It is a plant of wet, or at least damp, places, and wherever I’ve been able to see it, seems to like lots of sun. It’s one of those native species which seems to have slipped by the garden radar, as it really is quite a charmer.

Thanks, Wade, for a really great outing. Hope we can do it again somewhere.

[Answer: “Halberd-leaf hibiscus”,  Hibiscus laevis]

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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