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What is this mystery plant?

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Imagine what horticulture was like in England before the Revolutionary War. The British have always been wild about growing new things, and the development of the Atlantic colonies offered a tremendous number of new plants to try out. It wasn’t easy, though, to get these new plants back to England across the ocean. Oh, sure, seeds were pretty easy to get back … but real live plants were not. Botanists and nurserymen came up with all sorts of ideas about how best to transport them. One of these people was a chap named John Ellis.

Ellis apparently worked in the linen industry as his day job, but was so good at being a botanist and growing plants that he was better known as an up-and-coming horticulturist. As a Fellow of the Royal Society, he was sent on a mission to explore the plant life of western Florida, and to return interesting things to Britain to grow. While in Florida, he ran into examples of what has turned out to be this week’s Mystery Plant. Ellis was very impressed with the plant— so much so, he set out to describe it as a new genus and named it (in 1771) after a fellow nurseryman back in London named James Gordon. From the photo, I think you can see why Ellis was so taken by it.

It’s a small tree, usually slender, up to maybe 30 feet tall or so, and it’s evergreen. It is a plant of the Atlantic coastal plain, known more or less “continuously” from eastern North Carolina south to central Florida, and a part of its panhandle, and then jumping over into a few places in Alabama and Mississippi, not quite reaching Louisiana. It likes to grow on dampish, peaty ground, commonly associated with thick pocosin or bayhead vegetation.

The leaves are deep, shiny green, and leathery, with shallow teeth on the margins, from about halfway up to the tip of the blade. The flowers are on long stalks. There will be five green sepals wrapped tightly and protecting the bud. The sepals will spread backwards and allow the 5 petals to unfold, one by one. The petals are snowy white. The first petal to expand is a bit concave, shaped like a shallow bowl, and equipped with short little hairs —“cilia”— around the edge. All the petals are fused together at the base, and of course this makes up the corolla. Above the petals will be a prominent bunch of golden stamens, crowded into five fused groups, each group associated with a petal. (The effect of the prominent white petals with a central bright yellow bunch of stamens makes the flower look something like a fried egg.) Most of the times I’ve encountered these trees blooming, the flowers were way too high up to be reached, but when I’ve been able to smell the fresh flowers, I’ve always found them sweetly fragrant. Once the flower has aged, the corolla will fall off in one piece, taking all those stamens with it, ending up on the ground.

[Answer: “Loblolly bay,” Gordonia lasianthus]

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.