“I Found This Plant ...”
I almost knew what he would say before he spoke. The receptionist had told me she had a caller who was curious about a plant growing in the fields along the highway.
It was early April, too early for most flowering plants, but the time when a little purple-flowered mint (Lamium amplexicaule) paints Missouri’s fallow fields purple. It was getting to be a spring ritual that this plant would trigger several phone calls from the public.
As a Conservation Department botanist, I would get several more inquiries before the purple flowers faded and gave way to other, less showy, vegetation.
Over the years, I have seen other plants catch the public’s eye during a particular season, usually corresponding to the plants’ flowering or fruiting periods. Sometimes the flowers or fruits present a dramatic show of color due to their sheer numbers; at other times, the individual flowers or fruits just seem so odd.
The descriptions and photos that follow highlight some of the plants that are most likely to elicit questions. Perhaps you have wondered about the identity of some of these plants as well, but haven’t had the opportunity to ask. If you haven’t yet spotted them on the Missouri landscape, I hope you will enjoy seeing them here.
Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)
This small (up to 10 inches tall) annual plant can turn acres of fallow fields pinkish-purple in very early spring, sometimes flowering as early as February.
Henbit grows very shallow roots and does not hinder crops that will later occupy the same ground. The common name refers to the seeds being eaten by chickens.
A closely related species, dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), blooms at the same time and has similar flowers. Its flowers are less conspicuous, though, being somewhat obscured by the plant’s leaves. Both species are native to Europe, Asia and Africa.
Passion flower, maypops (Passiflora incarnata)
A perennial vine of roadsides and fencerows in the southern half of Missouri, passion vine attracts attention because of its unique flower structure and its egg-shaped fruits filled with citrus-like pulp. “Passion flower” relates to the correlation of the flower parts to aspects of the crucifixion story. “Maypops” refers to the popping sound made by the fruits when stepped on.
Flowers appear as early as June, and fruits can be found through October. The edible fruits are green, then yellowish, and they have pale-colored pulp with a somewhat sweet and acidic flavor.
Raccoon grape (Ampelopsis cordata)
This high-climbing, woody vine resembles grapes, but it is not a true grape and its fruits are not edible. Hardly noticeable when bearing its tiny, greenish-yellow flowers in late spring or early summer, this vine’s fruiting clusters in autumn are its real attraction. The clusters of berries can exhibit several different colors at the same time, including orange, pink and turquoise, all with a silvery cast.
Too aggressive for ornamental use, the raccoon grape can proliferate when climbing and can pull down small trees with its weight.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and green dragon (Arisaema dracontium)
These related species are found in forested areas and display interesting flowering parts in the spring. Most observers recognize jack-in-the-pulpit, but green dragon is less familiar and less conspicuous, lacking the easily recognized “jack” and “pulpit.”
Individuals of both species occasionally grow to 2 1/2 feet tall, dwarfing their usual heights of around 1 foot. They produce similar fruiting structures, and it is these fruit clusters that many observers can’t match to the plants. This is because the readily identified foliage has withered before the fruits become conspicuous against late summer or early fall vegetation. The clusters are composed of dozens of reddish-orange berries packed tightly at the top of a stalk, somewhat resembling a stubby, brightly colored ear of corn.
Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus)
This shrub or small tree is rather nondescript, except when in flower or fruit. It grows throughout Missouri, mostly in forests along streams, but can be found in urban landscapes where some natural vegetation remains.
The purple flowers appear in delicate, stalked clusters as early as late April. Although small, they can be numerous enough to capture one’s attention. Supported by long stalks, the fruits develop by September or October into four-lobed, pink capsules that split open to reveal bright-red seed coverings.
The name wahoo is derived from a Dakota term for “arrow wood,” a reference to the straight branches that were used for arrow shafts.
Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) and pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys)
These related species are noteworthy because they lack the green pigment chlorophyll. Rather than manufacturing their food themselves, they get their nutrients from an association with a fungus in the soil that transfers carbohydrates from another plant that is photosynthetic (uses sunlight to manufacture food).
When it emerges through brown forest leaf litter, the ghostly appearance of Indian pipe makes you question whether you’re looking at a plant or some type of mushroom. It is actually a flowering, seed-producing plant with white stems, leaves and flowers. The nodding flowers of late summer or early fall gave rise to the common name, but they turn skyward as they begin to produce fruits.
Pinesap flowers as early as late June. It is similar to Indian pipe, but has more than one flower per stem, is never white and ranges from yellow to salmon colored.
False hellebore (Veratrum woodii)
A perennial of moist forests in the eastern two-thirds of Missouri, except for the southeastern lowlands, false hellebore is conspicuous in the spring for its large clusters of pleated leaves. Individual leaves can reach 1 foot or more in length. There are usually several plants growing in close proximity on lower portions of east- or north-facing slopes or bluffs.
Flowering plants produce a stem that grows from 2 feet to more than 4 feet tall, its upper portion branched and bearing small purple flowers. In most years, however, few if, any plants, will flower at a site. The plant contains poisons and is avoided by most grazing animals due to its sharp, burning taste.
Spider lily (Hymenocallis caroliniana)
This striking perennial wildflower is geographically restricted in Missouri to the southeastern lowlands, where it grows in low swampy areas and bottomland forests. The large, fragrant white flowers appear in clusters of three to seven in July or August.
The flowers are supported by a leafless stem about 2 feet tall, above a cluster of strap-like leaves up to 2 feet long. The spider lily is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental but may not flower consistently further north than southern Missouri.
Devil’s claw or unicorn plant (Proboscidea louisianica)
Devil’s claw is a plant of waste areas, railroads, pastures, sandy ground and gravel bars along streams. It is native to Missouri but is uncommon and scattered in central and southern regions.
The showy flowers, sticky surfaces and rank odor make this an interesting species. However, the fruits are the real attention-getter, unlike any other found in our flora. The young fruits can be pickled for consumption, but older fruits become woody and definitely inedible. They persist for many months and may be found long after the annual plant has withered and disintegrated. The long beak on the fruit splits at maturity into two halves that curl into the 6-inch-long “devil’s claws.”
Deciduous holly or possum haw (Ilex decidua)
The bright-red fruits of deciduous holly stand out as leaves are shed in the fall and what were once thickets of foliage become the grays and browns of woody plant barks. Deciduous holly is the more common of two native Missouri hollies that lose their leaves each fall. It is a shrub or small tree, often with arching branches with numerous stubby projections called spur branches. With the leaves off, the numerous red berries of deciduous holly catch the eye and lead observers to question its identity.
Deciduous holly can be found in a variety of wet or dry habitats throughout the Ozarks and the southeastern lowlands, but it is absent from much of northern Missouri. As with other hollies, only female trees produce berries. The berries persist throughout most of the winter, their bright-red color eventually turning to brown. They seem to be ignored by wildlife for months but eventually are consumed as either their taste improves or other wild fruits become scarcer.
Dodder, lovevine (Cuscuta)
Dodder has been described as looking like a batch of orange spaghetti that someone threw onto other vegetation. Without leaves, chlorophyll or roots, it is understandable why observers might question whether dodder is a plant at all.
There are ten species of dodder that occur in Missouri, and all are related to our familiar morning glories. All are parasitic, deriving their water and food from the plants to which they become attached. Their stems can twine tightly around another plant or sprawl in masses on top of other vegetation.
In summer or fall, the small white flowers make dodder more readily identifiable as a plant, and it is primarily the flower characteristics that allow botanists to identify the species. In southern climates, dodder can be an agricultural pest by infesting crop fields, decreasing yields and fouling harvesting machinery. In Missouri, it is usually just a curiosity.
Note: Latin, or scientific, names are given along with common names to more accurately specify these plants. The Latin names are the key to obtaining more information about the species. Internet searches on the Latin names will provide additional photos and descriptions. All of the plants listed in this article are native to Missouri except for the henbit and dead nettle.