Mystery Plant: Yellow-wort found off the docks in Charleston – Tallahassee Democrat


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John Nelson
 |  Mystery PlantEvery now and then botanists go searching for plants in places which are not particularly pretty. Some of the most interesting plant sleuthing takes place in sites that are very disturbed, for whatever reason, and not the picture-postcards that most people like to show each other.Ditches, roadsides, post-fire burns, logging decks, and city dumps (yes, indeed) are among the kinds of places that often harbor some of the most interesting plant life.Gardener: Listen to your plants: Spotlight on Tallahassee educator and gardener Kathy CarmichaelBlueberries: Tallahassee's Jubilee Orchards celebrates 10 years of organic blueberriesSpeaking of harbors — and although you might think I’ve lost my train of thought, bear with me — historically, harbors on seacoasts are good places for botanists. As an example, the harbors of the Atlantic coast of the USA have been quite interesting for us botany types, especially back in the 18th and 19th Centuries.Ports from Boston to Norfolk figure into this, as well as more southern ports, such as Charleston, Savannah, and Mobile. Steam ships leaving Europe (or wherever) for America commonly had their hulls packed with ballast, generally stones, brick, or sand and soil, in order to provide stability during the voyage.Once arriving, the ballast was piled up wherever it was convenient, sometimes right next to the dock, and then cargo was loaded on for the trip back home. And, it worked both ways: American vessels did the same thing on their trips the Europe. The thing about this ballast is that it commonly contained seeds or fruits of plants from wherever the ballast was obtained, thus an easy way for trans-oceanic distribution of new species.Over time, herbarium records in America have documented the arrival of hundreds of different plant species along the east coast, sometimes the same species being introduced many times independently. Most of these new aliens would have done pretty well, blooming and making a go of it, for one or two seasons before dying out and disappearing totally.Others, though, have been more at home in their new American settings, and have spread to the point of being naturalized. Plant collectors searching for these new species would have been thrilled to make nice herbarium specimens of these — but the dark side is that many of these new aliens quickly spread as weeds; a lot of them are still with us.So, the other day, I was able to tag along with Keith Bradley, the botanist for South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources, to check out the plant life of the docks in Charleston.It was not hard to find industrial settings along the Cooper River where ships come in. Although modern vessels now use tanks of water for ballast, they can still be the source of new plant — and animal — introductions. Keith and I stopped near the docks at a weedy ditch margin, and it wasn’t 3 minutes later that we found this Yellow-wort,  Blackstonia perfoliataIt is a lovely plant, native to Europe, and you can be forgiven if you don’t know it, because this is the first time it has been recorded in North America! There were only 20 or so flowering stems seen, and we don’t know if it is making a quick visit, or intending to move in for good.Stay tuned! John Nelson is the retired curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in Columbia SC. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email [email protected] miss a story:  Subscribe to the Tallahassee Democrat using the link at the top of the page.
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