Some of you know that I’m retired, actually, as of this past July 30, but they still let me come to the university (I have a parking permit!) and busy around in the herbarium: there’s a lot to do, of course. I’m hoping that they will let me keep coming in indefinitely. Hey, when you’re retired, you get to do what you like to do, right?
So there I was walking across campus on a beautiful autumn morning, enjoying the quiet and scenery, watching the scholars hurrying to class, staring at their cell phones. Suddenly, a fellow with a leafblower starts his noisy craft right in front of me. Must have been the loudest leafblower in the world! One of those supersonic models, I expect. The leaves, flying through the air, haphazardly rising and falling with the sand and whatever else was on the ground: such an awful noise. (And gas fumes.) And usually the leaves don’t behave, not exactly going into the pile as intended. Oh, for an army of rakers on our campus! And maybe wherever you are! My anti-leafblower soapbox will not be complete without pointing out that it is in fact OK to allow leaves to stay on the ground. Your sensibilities may demand that your yard be free of any leaves, but remember that a slowly decaying carpet of leaves is what nature intended: improves the soil, adding organic matter, and there are many little critters which benefit from having fallen leaves over them. The connection with our Mystery Plant? Read on!
It’s a hickory, of course, and like all hickories, utterly deciduous. This species is native to most of the Eastern USA, down to the Florida panhandle. It can get to be a sizeable tree, and the champion is over 100 feet tall. It likes to grow in fairly damp places such as floodplains, swamp forests, and pond margins, but will also occasionally be found in more upland setting. The bark on older individuals will exhibit furrows and some flakiness. This in one of the hickories whose buds are “valvate,: that is, the scales arranged margin-to-margin, rather than overlapping. (The familiar pecan, which is a hickory species, also has buds like this.) All hickories have pinnately compound leaves, and those of our Mystery hickory have seven to nine sharp-pointed leaflets. The leaflets are a bit hairy, and the lower surface features plenty of tiny scales.
Like all hickories, the flowers appear in the spring, the male and female flowers on the same tree. The male (staminate) flowers are in those wiggly little spikes that look like skinny caterpillars, and the female (pistillate) flowers end up producing the fruit. In this case, the intact fruit is nearly spherical, and with a short little beak at the end. When fully ripe, the fruit husk will split down the sides, about halfway. The nut inside will be somewhat four-sided, with a relatively thin covering. The kernel within is said to be bitter, but I have to confess that I’ve never tried to eat one of these things. But plenty of wildlife species will.
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. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Answer: “Bitternut hickory,” Carya cordiformis