This plant’s leaves have racing car stripes

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There I was, a tender young undergraduate student, oh so many years ago, obediently following my botany professor with 22 other adventurers through the bogs and sphagnous mire of South Carolina. My professor was Wade T. Batson Jr., who at the University of South Carolina was famous for taking his students into impenetrable thickets of vegetation in our quest for the knowledge of plant names.

Dr. Batson “took” his class, commonly, by running hither and thither, which of course saved us some time on the field trip, and caused great excitement and delight for most of us kids (but consternation for a few, I fear.) Anyway, I remember one of our winter field trips to the shrubby, evergreen margin of a local pond, where the ground was wet. (We had been told to be prepared, and woe to the heedless and ill-shod young scholar who, on the bus ride back home would surely have wet feet.) And there! Dr. Batson pointed a new one for us. One that does like to have wet feet.

It’s an evergreen shrub, or sometimes a veritable tree, common in various kinds of wetlands on the Atlantic Coastal Plain from Virginia to Louisiana. It grows in thickets, often densely, with a variety of other wetland shrubs including blueberries, smilax and hollies. The plants can grow so densely that they often hinder young botanists while crawling through them.

Many trunks are generally present, and the upper stems are somewhat angled. The leaves are indeed evergreen, rather tough and leathery. The mature leaves are bright, deep green, shaped something like a football. If you look closely at the smooth margin of a leaf, using your hand lens (of course), you’ll see a thin but distinctive vein just inside the margin, which runs the length of the leaf along both sides. Dr. B (that’s what we called him) would point out this little vein and liken it to a racing stripe on a stock car. This little stripe is therefore a good way to identify the shrub…which was the whole point. And, he poked a little fun into the exercise by telling us that we should therefore call this shrub “Nascar-bush.” A perfect connection between a plant characteristic and something we could relate to! It may be now that racing stripes on stock cars aren’t as de rigueur as they used to be. Doesn’t matter.

Otherwise, this shrub is also easily identified by its flowers. They hang downward, clustered along the stem. The corolla is sort of urn-shaped, upside down, and white to pinkish (sometimes red) and with a delightful scent. Bees love them, and the plants also serve as hosts for certain butterfly species. Now, the flowers don’t open up until the spring, so you won’t be seeing any right now. You can, though, spot the woody capsules which follow the flowers.

And now for the “Grinchy” part of the story. The foliage apparently is at least a little toxic, if eaten in sufficient quantity. Not sure why you’d actually want to…but chew on something else if the urge strikes.

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 emailnelson@sc.edu.

Answer: “Fetterbush,” “Nascar-bush,” Lyonia lucida]

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