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MYSTERY PLANT: Mystery Plant is often found in longleaf pine savannas

August 19, 2018

It’s not often that we botanists while on our field trips have to stop, speechless, and stare at a flower with jaws agape. It happened to me and my buddies recently deep in the pinelands of the Francis Marion National Forest.

It’s a not a tall plant, only about 2 feet high, and it never branches. A single flower is produced on each stem. The leaves are skinny with sharp points, and they get progressively smaller up the stem. Notice that there are six brightly colored perianth parts: three sepals and three petals. They all look pretty much like each other, and it would be OK if we refer to them as “tepals,” just for convenience.

These tepals generally have bright yellow or deep orange coloration, along with a scattering of conspicuous purplish-brown spots. These tepals offer a good example of what we call a “claw” – the base of each one is much more slender than the rest. In each flower are six stamens, as well, and a central style arising among the stamens, coming up from the ovary.

If you look closely at an open flower, you are likely to see pollen dusting the sticky stigma at the style’s tip. If you recall your Botany 101 class (you did take botany, didn’t you?), you’ll know that plants such as this one – with grass-like, narrow leaves, and with flower parts in threes (or multiples of three) – are most often classified as what we call “monocots”, as opposed to the “dicots”.

In 1788, this plant was formally named and described by a South Carolina botanist named Thomas Walter, who named the plant, then new to science, after the fascinating and much-esteemed natural historian, Mark Catesby. Walter’s book, “Flora Caroliniana,” was published in London just five years after the end of the American Revolutionary War. In this book, Walter attempted to describe every plant growing in South Carolina as best he could, along with previously unnamed ones that he proposed as “new”.

It would be difficult to claim that Walter was the very first European-American to ever have seen our Mystery Plant in the wild. Imagine, though, the excitement he must have felt upon first seeing this gorgeous flower, realizing that it had no scientific name, and the excitement and pride he must have felt when naming it after Catesby. Mr. Walter, who lived not far from the Santee River near present-day Lake Marion, surely saw this new plant in the longleaf pine savannas and flatwoods which were so common in the region 200 years ago. Of course, most of the savannas and flatwoods have been severely altered or destroyed since then.

Our mystery plant, though, is still with us today, although not as commonly. It occurs sparingly from coastal Virginia down into the Carolinas, and is probably more abundant in northern Florida, and then west to Louisiana. Ecologically, it is probably dependent on occasional forest fires as a natural control of competing shrubby vegetation which accounts, at least in part, for its increasing rarity.

[Answer: “Pine lily”, Lilium catesbaei]

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