Mystery plant: A rather common Southeastern shrub

Pictured is today’s mystery plant, Symplocos tinctoria, also known as “Sweet leaf” or “Horse sugar.”
Pictured is today’s mystery plant, Symplocos tinctoria, also known as “Sweet leaf” or “Horse sugar.” Special to The Herald-Sun

Did I tell you that I took Dr. Wade T. Batson’s introductory plant taxonomy class? Actually I took it twice, in two successive semesters here at the University of South Carolina … of course this was a good while ago, when I was an undergraduate. The course was so interesting to me that it was then I decided I would be a botanist. Dr. Batson had developed a huge reputation for his fantastic class, and of course for the marvelous adventures we all had — his hundreds of students over the years — on the field trips.

The field trips were always on Fridays, and were basically the high point of the week. Dr. Batson was not afraid of going (running, actually) through briar patches, ditches, and mud-holes in the deep woods in showing us the local flora, and woe unto whatever student was foolish enough not to be dressed for the occasion. The end of the field trip generally involved a happy ride back to campus, we students bragging in the school bus on our exploits of the day, and on how much mud we had caked on our blue jeans.

The field trips also involved a quiz … and these were not as much fun. Dr. Batson grilled us royally on plants we had previously studied, as well as the ones new to us that day. This particular plant, for some reason, was always tough for me to identify.

It is a rather common Southeastern shrub, or sometimes a small slender tree. It may be found in woodlands along bluffs, ravines, or black-water creeks, on much of the coastal plain from Delaware south to north Florida, and eastern Texas. It also occurs inland, sometimes in large numbers on high elevations, from Arkansas to Kentucky.

The plants are usually evergreen, with dark leathery leaves, a bit fuzzy on the lower surface. Great variability occurs in this species, though, and some plants (like the one in this photo) are devoid of foliage during the winter. The leaves themselves are rather boring, I’ve always thought, shaped like skinny footballs, and otherwise not very attractive. The midrib tends to be a bit yellow, and the leaf blades are somewhat sweet, like an apple peel, when chewed. The wood of this plant is rather soft and somewhat yellowish, and has been used, along with the bark, as the source of a yellow dye.

The flowers are truly a breath of fresh air in the early spring, bursting forth in roundish clusters on the twigs. The flowers are highly fragrant, and a real treat to smell. Small, fleshy fruits follow the flowers, each one containing a single seed. The plants are extremely easy to identify once the flowers have popped open … but of course the plants are a bit less memorable without them. Perfect for a question on a field quiz. (By the way, Professor Batson…or Dr. B to his students … died a couple of years ago, just shy of his 103rd birthday. What a wonderful professor he was!)

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, Columbia, S.C. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or call 803-777-8196, or email