Mystery Plant! #752

John Nelson

Posted 12/6/23

By John Nelson

(Photo by John Nelson.)

One of the nice things about moving to a new neighborhood, like we did recently, is taking new walking adventures. There’s always something to see: maybe a hidden garden behind someone’s house, or maybe a winter-time water feature, complete with late season ferns and sedges. Or how about a real surprise, lining the sidewalk?

Garden flowers, putting on a show, in late November? What’s it all about?

There are plenty of flowering plant species that wait until autumn (or even winter) to bloom. Of course, fall asters and goldenrods (as well as other members of the sunflower family) figure in to this equation, but now they are pretty much at the end of blooming. Tree-ivy (Fatsia) is blooming now, and lemon marigold and several species of gentian (bottle flowers) like to bloom in the middle of winter, too. “Late bloomers”, as they are, are probably able to capitalize on whatever pollinators happen to be in the area; we might expect that late-blooming species would be pollinated by just about any insect that still happens to be flying around. After all, most of the insects have begun a steep decline by late autumn.

(Photo by John Nelson.)

Our Mystery Plant grows in the yard of a nice lady down the street, a new neighbor for me. Her husband bought the plants from a local nursery, and planted the separated rhizomes each in a different cinder block, and then lined them up near the sidewalk. They have been there for years now, she says. The plants put up massive, tough, green leaves in the summer. The leaves are remarkable: shaped like a horse’s hoof, and up to a foot across. Flowering doesn’t start until October or so, at which time impressive stalks, 2-3 feet tall, eventually explode with clusters of brilliant daisy-like heads. The marvelous ray flowers and disk flowers are brilliant yellow. (These heads would be perfect for demonstrating the architecture of flowering within the sunflower family…too bad I’m not teaching class this semester.) Recall that in the sunflower family, the individual flowers are relatively small, and crowded into a circular, or sometimes tubular head or capitulum. All the petals are fused together within each separate flower. In the case of our Mystery Plant, strap-shaped flowers make up an outer ring: let’s call them “ligules” or “rays”. The more abundant flowers in the center are the “disk” flowers. Although this really looks a lot like some sort of garden sunflower, this species is in fact more closely related to the beautiful garden Senecios, as well as the weedy “Colt’s-foot” from farther north.

This plant is a native of Japan, where it likes to grow in shade, or partial sun, along rocky, mossy creek banks. It has been cultivated long enough that there are several cultivars available, and if you like it, you might search around at your local plant nursery.

Even on a cool day in the fall, the wasps and flies, and apparently all the other insects, make a bee-line to get to these blossoms. What a beautiful accent on a cool fall day, the cheerful afternoon light brightening the afternoon before another chilly night.

[Answer: “Leopard plant,” Farfugium japonicum]

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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