Our Mystery Plant may not be familiar to you, because it is fairly uncommon. You will surely know the family to which it belongs, however – the philodendron family.
The philodendron family is properly called the “Araceae.” Now, this is a fairly large family of mostly tropical plants, and there are between 3,000 and 4,000 species.
Most of these species love warm, humid environments, but some of these species are indeed distributed in higher latitudes and are found in temperate regions.
The members of this family are characterized, generally, by a characteristic inflorescence, or arrangement of the flowers.
The flowers will be very small and either male (producing pollen) or female (producing ovules).
The male and female flowers are both found embedded on the surface of a fleshy spike, usually with the female flowers clustered together below the male flowers, which are farther out toward the end of the spike.
The whole spike is surrounded, more or less, by a large bract that we call a “spathe,” and this spathe varies tremendously among the different species.
In the tropics, the taro plant, Colocasia esculenta (also known as elephant’s ear) is an important food source, its thick corms providing a useful starch.
The philodendrons and their relatives have long been popular as house plants, and most are very easy to grow.
You have probably heard, too, of the common Dieffenbachia, or dumb cane, which is so easy to grow that even I have one.
Anthurium, or flamingo plant, has brightly colored spathes that make its stems popular in floral arrangements.
Outside in the garden, the philodendron family provides us with a wide array of attractive calla lilies, caladiums and the mottled lords and ladies.
There are several species in the family which are native to the eastern United States and which are familiar wildflowers, such as Jack-in-the-pulpit and green dragon (both species of Arisaema), the aquatic golden club (Orontium) and the northern skunk-cabbage (Symplocarpus), an odd and stinky plant that flowers before the snow has melted.
Our Mystery Plant, though, is a true Southerner. It occurs naturally along the coast of the Carolinas, down into northern Florida and then west to Mississippi.
It normally occurs on damp, peaty soils of pocosins and similarly wet, shrubby habitats, always on acidic soils – those with a low pH.
Each plant can produce several handsome, bright green leaves, and these are prominently arrowhead-shaped.
Flowering occurs in July and August, which when the large, white scape unfolds. The spike within will be bright, creamy gold-yellow.
These plants really are attractive, often blooming with a variety of native grasses, sedges, orchids and other colorful species.
I’ve seen them in full bloom in parts of the Francis Marion National Forest here in South Carolina, and they really put on a show, brightly lit up against the dark green background.
Unfortunately, this Mystery Plant may in fact end up as a threatened species, due to the draining and manipulation of its habitats near the coast.
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. 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: “White spoonflower,” Peltandra sagittifolia]