Mystery Plant! #767

John Nelson

Posted 3/20/24

By John Nelson

Although spring has sprung, it is still a bit cool on these Southern mornings. As a botanist, I understand that many of my colleagues, botanists, that is, have been suffering through bouts of cabin-fever during the dark winter months, and now that spring has arrived with the promise  of fascinating botany out there, these intrepid brethren (and sistren) of mind are already beating the bushes, rushing to get out of doors, laughing at the chill, and searching the land for the first blooms, in order to make specimens for their various herbaria, and to get that first collection number for the new year. Such a brave soul was I this past weekend, on a foray into the wilds of what we South Carolinians call Bamberg County.

Now, the county seat is a town named Bamberg, not far from the pleasant village of Denmark, and as well from Norway and the little crossroads of Sweden: you might never have known that my state had such an apparent connection with western Europe. The town of Bamberg is itself situated just south of the south fork of the Edisto River, and is a drive of about an hour (the way I drive) south from my home, in Columbia. My destination was Lemon Creek, a proud swamp crossed by both US 601 and US 301, and thus crossed by many thousands of people, unknowingly and over the years, on their way from somewhere up north toward Florida. (Or back.)

(Photo by Linda Lee.)

Lemon Creek: I decided that the best way to ascertain its botanical secrets was by entering the flow directly, and yes, the water, up to my knees sometimes, was pretty darn chilly. Botanists get used to that sort of thing, of course: the mud and sticks present no problem for a brave phytologist.

It was gorgeous there in the blackwater stream. Cypress and tupelo towered above me, accompanied by red maple and ash. The early spring offered a bounty of young Carex atlantica, as well as cheerful butterweed, (Packera glabella), an aquatic bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica), the fantastically glowing, golden spikes of “Never-wet” (Orontium aquaticum), all of these being native to the area.

And then this: a most curious wetland plant, with delightfully divided leaves on a slender stem, rooted in the muck. This too is a native species, known from New England to Texas along the Coastal Plain. All of its leaves are alternate, or one at a time on the stem, and they feature, long, comb-tooth divisions on the margins. It’s not always in a swamp, but often in ditches and gum-ponds, often in great abundance, and forming mats. It’s an odd little plant, and doesn’t have the showy flowers of some of its neighbors, but it’s still worth a look on your next field trip. Wear your muck-boots.

(By the way, the town of Bamberg took a serious hit from a tornado on January 11 of this year, with considerable damage. We all hope they can get back on their feet as soon as possible.)

[Answer: “Mermaid-weed,” Proserpinaca pectinata]

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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