Mystery plant will bloom in woods into December

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When I was a college student, our spring botany class spent plenty of time in the woods up at a place called Cedar Creek, north of Columbia about 12 miles, here in Richland County, South Carolina. This area is a part of what we call the outer Piedmont, drained by a number of streams that flow west to our south-flowing Broad River. These various streams harbor a rich floral diversity, especially so in the spring: golden Alexander, atamasco lily, lousewort, trilliums, phlox, windflower and probably the most spectacular of all, the now-uncommon shooting star. What a show! Surely it is springtime blooming in our natural areas that has had so much of an impression on "budding" naturalists.

But now it is autumn (still pretty warm in these parts, though), and there is the late-season assortment of wildflowers to see, dominated perhaps by our native goldenrods and sunflowers. Here is one, however, that waits until now to start blooming, after most everything else is getting finished and reminding us once again, that even when things seem drab and stale outside, there is always something wonderful to look at. And of course, it grows up at Cedar Creek. A really nice thing about this species, and many of its close relatives, is that it will keep blooming out in the woods basically until the end of the year, when wildflowers really are scarce.

This is a native perennial, one of about 320 species of its kind around the world. It is widely scattered in the East from New York to Florida, and then into the Midwest, from the Chicago area down through Oklahoma and Texas. The plants come up from a cluster of thick, yellow roots, which have been used medicinally.

The stems are mostly smooth, sometimes a bit rough. Plenty of slender leaves can be found along the stem, two at a time, and the marvelous flowers are clustered at the stem tips. They say that you can render a sudsy, soap-like effect by rubbing the wet leaves. Hmmm, maybe so, but this traditional knowledge is indeed inherent in the specific epithet of this plant's scientific name. Each flower has a green calyx below, surmounted by a dramatic, tubular corolla made up of five fused, purple-blue petals. Interestingly, the petals are connected at their free tips by a thin membrane that forms a sort of "pleated" effect at the top of the flower.

The flowers are typically closed, though, or just barely opened, even when fully matured. Although the corolla is essentially closed, these are insect-pollinated flowers, with small bumblebees forcing themselves through the opening to get to the goodies. The flowers are followed by capsules, these containing lots of very tiny seeds, and each seed has a thin, narrow, circular wing.

The photo here shows a pressed specimen of this plant. In life, the flowers are beautiful and blue, but as time goes by after processing, they invariably fade. Still pretty, though.

Answer: "Blue-bottles," "Soapwort gentian," Gentiana saponaria

John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 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.