Mystery Plant! #779

John Nelson

Posted 6/12/24

By John Nelson

Botanists have plenty of heroes. One of our best known, of course, is Charles Linnaeus, the “Father of Plant Taxonomy,” who lived and worked in Sweden. His most memorable publication, probably, is a masterpiece called “Species Plantarum,” which was published in 1753, and which attempted to list every known plant species in the world, along with a brief description. Many plant species received their scientific names in this publication, and this week’s Mystery Plant is one of them. Linnaeus received a dried, pressed specimen of this plant, sent to him from Virginia, and it is upon this specimen (now at the Linnaean Herbarium, in London) that the plant’s name is based.

(Photo by John Nelson.)

It is a coastal plain species, but is never very common anywhere. It occurs from eastern Virginia south to the Florida panhandle, and then west to Texas (just barely). It is most likely to be found in deep, swampy forests, usually situated on slightly higher ground therein, such as bluffs or ravines. Here in the Palmetto state, the plants are perhaps associated with limestone soils in such habitats. It often forms a tall, spreading shrub, the young twigs and lower leaf surfaces quite silky. There is a very similar species, with slightly smaller flowers, in our Southern mountains, and eight or nine additional close relatives in Japan, Korea, and China.

When it is flowering, our Mystery Plant will knock your socks off: quite a show when you come upon it blooming like mad in the shady woods on a summer day. Nearly all of the flowers on a single plant will open about the same time, producing quite a show. Each flower, about 3″ across, somewhat resembles a cultivated Camellia (to which it is related), with five large, ivory-white petals and twenty or more red-purple stamens. Thus, among our native shrubby species, these are some of the prettiest flowers that there are. (Sorry to say, but the flowers don’t have much of a scent. Darn!) Following the blooms, silky capsules are produced containing a number of hard, shiny seeds.

(Photo by John Nelson.)

For all of its extravagance while blooming, the plants are almost invisible before and after the flowers. The shiny green leaves are not particularly noteworthy (the leaves are football-shaped, and green, very boring actually) so the plants generally blend in with neighboring shrubs and trees. This particular species is something of a challenge to grow in the garden; its Asian counterparts, though, are accessible to gardeners, and make fine ornamental shrubs.

Now back to Linnaeus and this plant’s name. Linnaeus named its genus after John Stuart, a Scot, the third Earl of Bute, who served for a time as Britain’s’ Prime Minister, and who was an enterprising amateur botanist, even helping design the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, near London. Problem was, Linnaeus spelled Stuart’s name very wrong, and the genus name we now use is, in effect, a big botanical typo. But there are a lot of rules when it comes to plant names, and we can’t change this one.

[Answer:  “Wild camellia,” “Silky camellia,” Stewartia malacodendron]

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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