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Mystery plant: Golden club

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Mystery plant: Golden club

 Golden club: Orontium_aquaticum2

“…the property of rain is to wet…”

William Shakespeare, As You Like It, III, 2.

This week’s mystery plant was clearly not a student of Shakespeare.

It is a member of one of the best-known plant families, which has its species spread nearly throughout the world's tropics and warm temperate regions: the philodendron family (“Araceae” is the family name).

This family provides us, of course, with philodendron, and also a large number of familiar house and garden plants, including spathiphyllum, calla, pothos, monstera, calladium, dieffenbachia, aglaonema, "Elephant ear," "Lords-and Ladies," and voodoo lily, which when blooming, produces a smell that reminds most people of a dead rat. (Or even worse.)

Hikers and naturalists in the eastern USA will be familiar with our native jack-in-the-pulpit, a philodendron relative, which is a fairly common, and starting to bloom now. When you visit your New England friends, they will probably want to tell you about their remarkable and late-winter blooming “skunk cabbage” (Symplocapus foetidus). All the members of this family maintain their tiny flowers in a narrow spike, which is surrounded by a modified, leafy bract. We went over this in my class many times: the spike is called (in “botanicalese") the spadix, and the surrounding bract is called the spathe. Have you heard of the fabulous “corpse-plant” (Amorphophallus titanium)? Various botanical gardens around the world grow this in their hothouses: when it blooms, it produces a massive purple spathe, along with a spadix up to 4 feet tall.

This week's mystery plant is a member of the philodendron family. It belongs to a genus containing only a single species, distributed in most of the eastern USA from New England through Kentucky and Tennessee, south to Texas.

It is a showy aquatic species, often spotted in big patches in slowly flowing blackwater streams or swamps, or at the edges of old rice fields near the coast. I’ve often seen it growing in beaver-ponds.

It is not a floating plant, as some aquatics plants are: this plant grows from massive rhizomes buried deep in the muck. The shiny bluish-silver leaf blades sometimes float, and sometimes stick up in the air.

The leaves are a foot long (or more) and covered with thousands of tiny, pointed hairs which "repel" water…thus the leaves are always dry. (Dribble some water on the leaves and you'll see. The drops will dance around on the leaf just like mercury rolling around on a smooth surface.) The flowering spike is bright yellow, with prominent reddish coloration below that. Unlike the other species in the family, our mystery plant lacks a spathe. After it finishes flowering, small bluish-green berries form on the spadix where the female flowers were. The ripening fruits develop below the waterline, as the stalk curls around and hides itself in the cool, dark water. If you do find this plant, don't be tempted to chew on it. Its cells contain plenty of calcium oxalate, which can cause burning and swelling.

John Nelson is the retired curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or email johnbnelson@sc.rr.com.