MYSTERY PLANT: Mystery Plant has root beer like smell

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MYSTERY PLANT: Mystery Plant has root beer like smell

Buy Now The leaves of this Mystery Plant are attached to the top of this subterranean stem, each one on a long, slender stalk or petiole. Photo by Linda Lee If I’d a cow that gave such milk, I’d dress her in the finest silk; Feed her lots of sweet, sweet hay, and milk her 20 times a day. — Joseph Winner, “Little Brown Jug” Yesterday my botany class had its third field trip of the semester. It was a bit foggy and cool when we started, but cleared up nicely and got warm by lunchtime. (Don’t forget that the middle of winter is a great time to study plants.) On our trip, we dealt mostly with woody plants with prominent, above-ground stems. Then we came up on this little thing, which is much different. It’s an evergreen herb with leathery leaves, and the stem is actually below the soil. The leaves are attached to the top of this subterranean stem, each one on a long, slender stalk or petiole. Sometimes you’ll see a single leaf all by itself, but usually there are three or four or more on each plant. The leaf blades are dark green and shiny, and usually feature a good bit of green-free zones, thus appearing mottled, or variegated. The blades are highly variable even on the same plant, but most frequently arrowhead-shaped and triangular, with rounded lobes down at the base, just above the attachment of the petiole. The blades themselves are a bit unusual as leaves go, in being just as wide, or wider, than they are long. The stem of the whole plant isn’t very big, just a few inches, equipped with a tuft of rubbery roots. This little plant has nine (or so) rather close relatives in North America, and this is the most common of them in the Southeast, growing in various forest types from Virginia down to Louisiana. Perhaps the best part of this short botanical story involves the plant’s spicy scent. Its tissues are basically infused with compounds producing a strong – and pleasant – root-beer scent, and the roots and leaves have been used as a wild source of ginger. (Of course, true ginger in the grocery stores is a completely different plant.) During the winter, this humble herb sits quietly on the chilly forest floor waiting for those first few sweet, warm days of early spring. Then it goes into action, and develops a few flowers. Don’t look for them popping out above the ground, though: the flowers remain buried under the leaf litter, where it’s sheltered, quiet and dark. The flowers will be tubular, up to 3 or so inches long and swollen at the base. There are no petals at all; the sepals that are present are fused, forming a bottle- or jug-shaped bloom housing the stamens and styles. The sepals are partially free at the tip end, forming three stumpy lobes. The whole flower is rather drab, but in a pleasant way, purplish-brown. […]