Mystery Plant! #759

John Nelson

Posted 1/24/24

By John Nelson

Not many flowers to see about this time of year, and certainly not those of woody plants. There are a few: you may know of Cornelian cherry with its very early yellow flowers, and then there a few varieties of “winter cherry” which are showing their delicate pink petals right now. It won’t be long (I hope) before the early magnolias are showing color, and that will mean spring can’t be far off. I can’t wait.

(Photo by John Nelson.)

Our Mystery Plant is a large tree…and like all flowering plants, it does produce flowers, although not until May and June. What you see in this picture is what is hanging on throughout the winter, long, long after the flowers themselves are gone.

When you do see the flowers of this species, they are commonly on the ground, after they have been blown out of the tree from which it comes. It is an odd flower, sure enough. There will be 3 greenish sepals at its “stem” end. When the bud opens, these 3 sepals will stick straight down. Then you will see 6 petals which are very showy, usually bright yellow and each with a prominent orange blotch down at the base of the petal, on its upper surface. The flowers don’t seem to have much of a scent, at least not to me… although others say that the flowers are lightly fragrant. They must be, because a variety of insects will visit them: flies, bees, and beetles. Then there will be a row, or a ring, of stamens, maybe 40-50. The stamens don’t look too much like the ones you’d see in a tulip or rose flower. In our Mystery Plant, the whole length of the individual stamen is devoted to producing pollen, whereas in a tulip or rose, the pollen is formed in a little container at the tip of the stamen. (Of course, this little “container” is the called the anther.) Above the stamens will be a tight little sort of pointed cone-like affair, which consists of a number of pistils (the “female” parts of the flower), each destined to form a dry slender fruit which contains one seed. When fully open, the flower is generally facing straight upward… which is another reason that it’s not too easy to see them in bloom while on the tree.

Flash forward to late January: all the sepals, petals, and stamens will have fallen away months ago, spent and useless…but the little cone of pistils, now stiff and rather woody, are sticking straight up toward the sky, the embryo of a new plant developing in each humble little seed. When ripe, in the autumn, the cluster of dried pistils will all disintegrate, each pistil fluttering away with new life inside.

This species grows naturally from New England to Lake Michigan, south to northern Florida and Louisiana. It makes a terrific street tree and grows rapidly, providing excellent summer shade, and seems to have few insect enemies. If you want to grow one, give it lots of room!

[Answer: “Yellow poplar,” Liriodendron tulipifera]

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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