MYSTERY PLANT: Mystery Plant is related to ginseng, English ivy

August 26, 2018

It’s back-to-school time, and that means school buses are on the highways while we drive to our next field trip destination. The end of summer is a good time to be looking for the season’s late bloomers. This mystery plant is one of them, and it can really make a point.

It is a native deciduous plant, fairly common from New York through the lower Midwest, and south to Texas and northern Florida. Most people would consider this plant something of a shrub, but it does get to be tree-sized, that is, short tree-sized, with the tallest usually about 30 or so feet high. The plants themselves are only sparingly branched, and so a thicket of them will sometime have a kind of stickly, willowy look.

The plants frequently spread themselves by runners, just below the soil surface. The leaves are quite impressive: technically, they are the largest leaves of any North American tree species. Each leaf is equipped with a smooth, pale brown stalk, and the blade is divided over and over again into many dozens of teardrop-shaped leaflets. Because most people will look at the entire leaf and see only leaflets, they think the leaf itself is small. But the leaf is compound, and big ones can be nearly 4 feet long.

The autumn foliage is an attractive sort of shiny yellow. In winter condition, the scar produced by the falling leaf is quite prominently U-shaped, something like a smile, and each of these leaf scars will reveal a series of vascular bundle scars within arranged in a crescent.

Small white flowers, lots of them, are produced in umbrella-like clusters in large, branched arrangements toward the top of the trunk, and of course you should be able to see them in bloom now. A variety of insects love the flowers, including bees, wasps and several butterflies. In late summer, the young fruits begin to swell and turn dark, eventually becoming shiny purple-black, and very juicy. Delicious for birds. Although when I’ve sampled one or two, they were terrible.

The wondrous thing about this plant must be its fantastic assortment of stickers it exhibits. The young stickers are pliable and green, but eventually become hardened, or indurated, both hook-shaped as well as straight. The sharp stickers can be found up and down the stems, and also on the leaf stalks and successive divisions of the leaf blade. You’ll also see a prominent “crown” of these things associated with each leaf scar. (Note that these stickers are technically what we call “prickles,” and are not thorns, as they contain no vascular tissue. The “thorns” of a rose bush are also prickles. If you want true thorns, you might consider something like the treacherous honey-locust.)

This native species makes a wonderful addition to the back border of a garden as long as you can handle its sprouts. The flowers and fruits are attractive to wildlife, and the fall foliage is nice. Be sure to tell your friends that it is a relative of ginseng (and English ivy.) (Photo by Linda Lee.)

[Answer: “Devil’s walking-stick”, Aralia spinosa]

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