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Mystery Plant 190

Gardeners will tell you that the soil has a lot to do with what will grow in it. One aspect of understanding the nature of soils involves their chemistry, specifically concerning the organic matter and the minerals within it, and whether they are naturally acidic, or alternatively circumneutral, or "basic." The more acidic a given soil is, the more likely it is that many plants will have a hard time absorbing nutrients from it. That is why, for the garden, acidic soils are frequently improved by the addition of substances like lime. (If you are serious about gardening, you probably need to test the soil you are working with. Your local Extension Office will know how to do this, and then give you recommendations for improving it.)

Some plants, though, prefer acidic soils. A good example would be most members of the rhododendron, or "heath" family, or “Ericaceae”. This week's mystery plant is a member of this large, well-known plant group.

This is a low, evergreen plant, technically a small shrub, which creeps along the ground. The genus name means “upon the ground”, which is a good way to describe it. It has hairy stems, and stiff, leathery leaves. Although it’s an evergreen, some of the leaves at the end of the winter are a bit tattered and browned. It really does prefer acidic soils, especially in sandy or rocky places. This species is very widely distributed across eastern North America, from Labrador to central Canada, and then as far south as Florida. In the Carolinas it is most common in the sand hills of the fall-line counties, and also in the mountains, but it is also probably present in all the piedmont counties as well. Down here where I live, it usually begins blooming in late February (we have one very early blooming specimen at the Herbarium from early February, 1938), and it's a cheerful reminder that winter is just about over. Farther north, it blooms somewhat later, as you might expect, and well into May. The blossoms are pink, or sometimes white, and there are five of them, fused at the base into a short tube, and then projecting into prominent lobes. There will be ten tiny little stamens inside the corolla. The pink flowers are magnificent, and have one of the most exquisite fragrances in nature: charmingly sweet. Of course, if you do find some of this in bloom, you’ll have to get down on your elbows and knees…or maybe even lower…to enjoy it.

In the Southeast, this species is probably not as common as it once was, due to habitat destruction: it can't stand much disturbance wherever it grows. And, it is usually doesn’t survive being transplanted from the wild, so please don’t dig up any. (Mother Nature and Plantman thank you!)

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Answer: "Trailing arbutus," "Mayflower," Epigaea repens

John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196.

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