Mystery Plant! #771

John Nelson

Posted 4/17/24

By John Nelson
johnbnelson@sc.rr.com

Behold this lovely flower! Now it’s spring–glorious spring!…and you can’t hardly go anywhere without seeing flowers. Lots of flowers.
(Photo by John Nelson.)

This flower is commonly seen on the ground, after it has been blown out of the tree from which it comes. It is an odd flower, sure enough. This being a member of the Magnolia family, botanists like to call the colorful, floppy parts of the flower “tepals”, rather than “sepals” and “petals”, like most flowers have. There will be 3-4 greenish tepals at its “stem” end. When the bud opens, these tepals will stick straight down. Then you will see 6 additional tepals which are very showy, usually bright yellow and each with a prominent orange blotch down at the base, 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 seemingly 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 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. Flowering is going on right now, and will last probably until the middle of May. By then, all the sepals, petals, and stamens will have fallen away, spent and useless…but the little cone of pistils will be chugging right along, the embryo of the 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! In its native range, it grows well at many elevations, and well into the lush slopes and higher terrain of the Appalachians. In fact, this is one of the tallest tree species in North America, some reported to be nearly 200’ tall! If you want to see some of these giant representatives, you might want to go the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or the nearby Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest There is only one other species in the same genus…a very close relative, which, interestingly, is native to eastern Asia.

[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 www.herbarium.org or email johnbnelson@sc.rr.com.

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