Mystery Plant! #773

John Nelson

Posted 5/1/24

By John Nelson
johnbnelson@sc.rr.com

I remember a costume party once several years ago, it was Halloween, of course. There was a crazy guy there, very tall, with wild hair and a frizzy beard, both dyed bright yellow (how did he do that?), and then he was dressed in bright yellow clothing. On his bright golden jacket was a big name card, and on that, his name: “RAY”. As in “a drop of golden sun.” Ha. Ha.

            I thought that this week’s Mystery Plant might work for that, too.

Here is a sunny herb sure to bring some cheer to your heart on a mid-Spring day. It grows naturally in sandy places on the coastal plain from North Carolina to Texas. It seems to like old fields and piney woodlands; I saw this plant here in the South Carolina midlands back in mid-April. By the time it really starts getting hot, though, it’s finished blooming.

(Photo by John Nelson.)

The plants are perennials, sometimes appearing singly and all alone, or perhaps in patchy populations. Most of the leaves will be down at the base, hugging the ground, and these will be sort of football-shaped, a couple inches long, and hairy. A few leaves will appear of the stem, too, but no more than about four. The stem is rather short, scarcely more than a foot tall, and if you look closely with your hand-lens, will reveal lots of tiny star-shaped (“stellate”) hairs up and down its height. At the top of the stem will be one or two flowers, maybe three. The five skinny little sepals at the bottom of the flower are very much out-shown by the spectacular yellow petals, always five, and broadened toward their tips. When fully open, they’ll be a rich, warm yellow, sort of glowing. Really pretty. The thing is, these petals only last a few hours once opened up, and so you usually see them at their best well before sundown. Anyway, they only last for a day, if that long. You’ll commonly see fallen petals down at the bottom of the plant. (I tried giving this flower the ol’ smell test…but I couldn’t pick up any fragrance.)

Don’t forget the stamens, though. They make a smart ring down at the base of the petals, and there will be 40-50, emerging from around the central greenish pistil, and at its summit is a sort of snowball-looking stigmatic region, the place where the pollen ends up. This is one of those wildflowers that produces a dry capsule as a fruit, one with several seeds inside. These seeds are hard-coated, and apparently won’t sprout until a year after lying dormant on the ground. There is some evidence that the seeds are stimulated to sprout by wildfires, which makes some sense, as this species does grow in fire-prone habitats.

Next time you go on one of your field trips into some sandhills near your place, take a look for this attractive drop of golden sun. Or maybe you’ll see a doe: a female deer. 

[Answer:  “Rockrose,” “Sunrose”, Crocanthemum carolinianum]

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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