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MYSTERY PLANT: Mystery Plant’s flowers resemble a glowing candle

September 30, 2018

In case you didn’t know, our Herbarium offers a free plant identification service. Anybody who wants to can send us a leaf, a seedpod, a photo, or an unknown plant (tree, shrub, houseplant, weed, etc.) and we will do our best to put a name on it. Knowing the right name of a plant is a big step toward understanding it – although this sounds a bit philosophical – it really does speak to the importance of being able to attach names to various things around us, not just plants.

Knowing the name of a plant will make it a lot easier, for instance, in determining the best ways for growing it. On the other hand, it is often much easier to develop a strategy for getting rid of a weed if you know what exactly it is you are trying to eliminate. Did I mention that this identification service is free? For more information on this public service, call 803-777-8196.

Now here is a plant that we’ve received a number of times for identification. It’s a real show-stopper when in full bloom, although lots of gardeners like it just for the leaves.

It’s a member of the bean family, one of the largest plant groups, species-wise, on earth. More specifically, this tropical bean is a member of the bean “subfamily” known as Caesalpinioideae, and is thus related to honey-locusts (Gleditsia), the various partridge-peas (Chamaecrista) and even the common redbud (Cercis canadensis). Our Mystery Plant belongs to a big genus, with probably over 500 related species.

It has attractive and remarkable foliage, each leaf with 10-15 pairs of rounded leaflets. Interestingly, there’s always an even number of leaflets, the leaf apex terminated by a pair. Even more interestingly, these leaflets basically fold up, like praying hands, along the leaf midrib at night. (Botanists like to use the term “nyctinasty” to refer to such night movements by plants.)

Flowering stalks are loaded with brilliant gold flowers forming thick spikes, standing straight up, giving the effect of a brightly glowing candle. Pods (legumes, actually) follow the flowers, and are somewhat angled. They start out green, but become brown as they dry. When I’ve seen large plants of this species on a calm, warm autumn day, there are invariably lots of insects visiting.

Bees and butterflies are attracted to the flowers, and wasps, flies and ants seem to like investigating the fruits and leaves which tend to give off a sticky, somewhat shiny resin. This plant has been used medicinally, but its seeds and foliage are probably somewhat toxic if ingested in large amounts.

This is a tropical species, native to portions of South America, but commonly grown now as an ornamental. In warm places, it behaves like a perennial and may actually form a small tree. Otherwise, in colder areas, it dies down to the ground, and presumably won’t survive unless mulched heavily. Not being mulch of a gardener myself, I can’t help you there too much.

[Answer:“Candlestick plant,” Senna alata]

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