Mystery plant not picky about where it grows

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Botanists are always looking for interesting places, because that's where the interesting plants are. The thing is, just about any kind of place is going to be interesting to a botanist in one way or another. Why, just this past weekend I was botanizing out in the countryside near our beautiful Edisto River. It was the middle of nowhere, and I spied a wonderful place for a botanist to spend some time: a "loading deck."

Not the kind of loading deck that you use to get a piano from a truck to the inside of a concert hall. No, this is the sort of loading deck that timber companies use to stack and arrange tree trunks they have cut from a forest, the trunks then sawed into convenient sizes for loading onto trucks and hauling away.

Loading decks are typically right next to a road or highway, for convenience. This is hard, noisy work, if you've never seen one in operation. Generally, timbering companies take pride in cleaning up a loading deck after it is used, removing the wood chips and debris from the area once they have finished. The equipment and machinery that they use often takes something of a toll on the landscape, though, frequently leaving ruts in the ground. As forms of mechanical disturbance to the ground, these ruts are important ecologically.

For one thing, ruts provide places for water to pool up, at least temporarily, and amphibians and other critters like that. And they often allow seeds within an existing soil bank to break dormancy and sprout. The "sudden" disappearance of a canopy overhead and the resultant sunlight entering the system are also important on the recovering vegetation below. And how it can recover!

The loading deck that I visited was two or maybe three years old and filled with all sorts of native species, blooming like crazy: plenty of species of sedges (nutrush, beakrush, and Carex), milkworts (Polygala), skullcap (Scutellaria), seed-boxes (Ludwigia), milk-pea (Galactia), boneset (Eupatorium), purple ruellia, tickseed (Coreopsis), and this handsome thing.

This native herb has smooth stems and somewhat bluish-green, sword-shaped leaves. It's blooming now, with some of the most brilliant pink-magenta flowers you can ever see. The individual flowers are relatively large, with a prominent floral tube giving rise, at the top, to four short sepals and four very conspicuous petals. There will be eight separate yellow stamens and one pistil. The petals will fall away. As the ovary develops, so does the floral tube that's left, eventually forming a tubular cup full of tiny, wedge-shaped seeds. This species has a number of related cousins (all members of the same genus, and all attractive).

While it's blooming, it is quite conspicuous, and often associated with pine savannas. Look for it in damp places in the Coastal Plain, from North Carolina to eastern Texas, where it is fairly common. It's not always picky about where it grows, though, and sometimes you'll see it along ditches and pond edges. And sometimes in a rut.

Answer: "Savanna meadow-beauty," Rhexia alifanus

John Nelson is the curator of the 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, visit www.herbarium.org, call (803) 777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.