“I see thy glory like a shooting star
Fall to the base earth from the firmament.”
— William Shakespeare, King Richard II, Act 2, scene 4
It’s a tragic story, after all. (It’s technically one of Shakespeare’s “History” plays.) The Earl of Salisbury is basically thinking out loud concerning the king … who is doomed. I’m afraid that this sad story finds a home, in a sense, with our Mystery Plant. But first, the good news.
Our marvelous plant has a truly spectacular flower. The five petals, which may be snowy white to bright pink, are swept back, like the tail of a comet. The five golden stamens are united into something of a cone, with the thin style emerging just at the tip of the flower. The flower thus resembles a shooting star, strongly declined and therefore falling from the heavens. After blooming, each flower will produce a smooth capsule containing a number of small seeds. This plant is a perennial species, and it arises from a small patch, or rosette, of strap-shaped leaves, narrowed toward the base. The flowering stem is up to about 2 feet tall, and at the top, the flowers arise in a cluster of 6-12, on slender stalks. It is recognized by most botanists in eastern North America as a variable species, with several relatives in western North America (and also Siberia). There is considerable controversy, though, concerning the true number of species in North America: they are quite variable, and not always easy to separate.
It’s a member of the botanical family “Primulaceae,” which most people will know as the “cowslip” or “primrose” family. (The family is widespread around the northern hemisphere, perhaps most well known for garden primulas and cyclamens, and the weedy cowslips of Europe.) Por Mystery Plant occurs in native habitats in much of the eastern USA, in fact, from the prairie provinces of Canada south through Georgia. It is at home in shady woodlands here in the South, and is a cheerful addition to the early spring suite of blooms. I remember the first time I ever saw it, here in South Carolina, just north of Columbia, in the spring of 1973. It was on a class field trip, with my professor, Dr. Wade T. Batson, one of the patron saints of southern botany. I’ll never forget the scene: the dainty flowers of this native species, accompanied by buttercups, atamasco lily, and wild geranium, all dancing in the light spring breeze.
So much for the good news. If there is bad news, it is probably that this species, along with plenty of others, are declining in the wild, in part due to indiscriminate digging by plant fanciers, but also by loss of habitat. This one is easy to grow as a garden plant, but care should be taken to insure that purchased plants come only from reputable dealers, and never from wild-collected populations. Fortunately there are still plenty of places to see healthy populations; in South Carolina, Stevens Creek Heritage Preserve, in McCormick County, provides such an opportunity. If you’re interested in seeing this species, check with your local Natural Heritage office, or investigate your state’s native plant society.
EDITOR’S NOTE: John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in the Department of Biological Sciences. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org, call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.