MYSTERY PLANT: Mystery Plant has cotton-candy like fragrance

September 2, 2018

Bottom.” Thisby, the flowers of odious savours sweet,– “

Quince. “Odours, odours.”

Bottom. “– odours savours sweet…”

— A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 1

It’s one of the funniest situations in any of Shakespeare’s comedies, and surely had his audience rolling. Several goofballs intend to act out the parts of “Pyramus and Thisby” during the wedding celebration of the Duke of Athens and his newly betrothed, Hippolyta. The actors had their heart in it, but alas, needed some coaching with the lines and speech. This week’s Mystery Plant makes really wonderful, sweet odors but I am afraid that the plant itself is a bit odious.

It’s a perennial vine, vigorous and ultimately with woody stems. Handsome foliage is produced: the leaves come two at a time at each node of the stem, and each leaf is divided into a number of dark green, toothy leaflets. These leaflets have the curious ability of wrapping themselves around other plants’ parts much like tendrils would. It’s a good way to access the top of surrounding vegetation, including small trees.

The plants grow like crazy starting in late spring, and blooming begins late in the summer. Now, at least in central South Carolina, blooming seems to be at its full maximum. Clouds of conspicuous, white flowers are produced in masses atop a bank of tangled vinery, to the point that some of the supporting vegetation may start to sag under the weight. Each individual flower is made up of four elongated sepals that form an X. There will be a good many white stamens in the center and a number of separate white, skinny pistils.

Most people will agree that when this plant is in bloom there is not much else like it. The scent of the flowers is marvelously sweet, a delicate sort of cotton-candy mask that seems heaviest on a warm afternoon and well into the evening; the desire of many a fat bumblebee and hawkmoth. After blooming, each one of those pistils will elongate, containing a single seed and eventually become fuzzy and feathery. (Botanists would call the fruit an achene – one that is specialized for floating a bit through the air.) By the time frost comes around, the accumulated achenes look like soft, downy fur on the vines. Now I’ve been getting a good many requests for identification of this plant, and most everybody seems to be thrilled to have it in their yard due to the wonderful fragrance.

But that word “odious” comes up. This species is native to eastern Asia, and I fear its intentional importation into the U.S. long ago was a mistake. It’s become widespread east of the Mississippi, and is likely to keep spreading. It has a potential for being a real pest, just like many other non-native plants. In fact, most people I’ve heard from about this plant admit that they don’t know how it got into their yards: it just sort of showed up and probably won’t ever leave.

[Answer: “Sweet autumn clematis”, Clematis terniflora]

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