What is this mystery plant?

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 By John Nelson

March 7 was perfect for a botany field trip, bright and sunny. A good many flowers coming into bloom, the air warming up a bit, and I guess spring is arriving. I took my class to a marvelous place here in central South Carolina, Poinsett State Park, in western Sumter County just on the east side of the Wateree River. The site has had a long history, featuring a spring-fed pond that, for a considerable amount of time, powered a mill. The state park was put together in the 1930s, largely by the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and much of their impressive architecture remains in place. If you ever find yourself in the middle of my state, I hope you can come by here.

Now, this part of South Carolina is slam in the middle of what are called the High Hills of the Santee, well-known locally for its anomalous landscape, which features hilly terrain, in some places with a relief of nearly 200 feet. Unusual geologic systems are present, including deposits of Fuller’s earth, a fine-grained clay-like material, as well as coquina, a limestone-based sedimentary rock containing fossilized shells. Coquina was also used as a durable construction material, like an early form of cinder block. These High Hills, which saw plenty of action during the American Revolution, represent the highest ground of the inner coastal plain between Columbia and Charleston, and not so far from Sumter, another town worth a visit.

Use your imagination, and you could think of these hills as the Alps. And what’s the most famous wildflower of the Alps? What else, other than Edelweiss?

Our Mystery Plant is not Edelweiss, but it is a relative. (It’s also related to common rabbit tobacco.) It’s a member of the sunflower family, and is fairly frequent on high ground throughout much of eastern North America. Most of its leaves are near the ground, often spoon-shaped. The plants occur in patches, producing slender stolons, and the upright flowering branches get to a foot or so tall. Nearly all of the plant’s parts feature silvery-white, silky hairs, especially on the lower leaf surfaces and stems. The tiny tubular flowers are congested into heads, a universal feature of the sunflower family. The heads are surrounded by a series of tiny, pointed bracts. Male plants, producing pollen, are separate from the female plants, and of course it is the female plants that ultimately produce the cottony-wisped seeds. The plants are early bloomers, bringing quiet cheer to the still leafless woods. The softly wooly heads, crowded together at the top of the stems, have reminded some people of kittens’ paws.

You’ve probably started humming the Edelweiss song to yourself by now, and that’s OK. Our little Mystery Plant probably won’t ever be starring with Julie Andrews, but it surely is a nice addition to our flora, “small and white, clean and bright.”


[Answer: “Pussytoes,” Antennaria plantaginifolia]


John Nelson is curator of A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia, S.C. 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, go to herbarium.org or call (803) 777-8196 or email nelson@sc.edu.