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Mystery Plant: From graffiti to foliage to nuts, this tree built a fan base

Mystery Plant: From graffiti to foliage to nuts, this tree built a fan base

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Mystery Plant

The leaves of this Mystery Plant turn a sort of pale yellow in the fall and remain attached to the twigs all winter long, eventually becoming a sort of silvery tan. Its pale wood has been popular for making clothespins.

It’s my favorite tree. Has to be.

Everything about it is interesting, and all its parts are attractive. I first learned about this tree when I was a tiny undergraduate student, in my first botany class.

Our field trip was to the wild and mysterious Congaree Swamp, now Congaree National Park, where this tree is common along the bluffs that border the floodplain. There we learned that it is sometimes called “initial tree” — a reference to the practice of carving one’s initials into the bark, which is very smooth.

Coming upon one of these trees in deep woods can be a sort of historic experience in a sense, especially if old initials, dates — and short messages — can be read from the bark. Sometimes, on really old trees, the trunk will bear testimony to a long-forgotten message. Of course, depending on the age of the tree, and the engraving (and spelling) skill of the carver, the written testimonies may or may not be easy to read.

This tree is a native species from eastern Canada and the upper Midwest south to Texas and northern Florida. It likes to grow on high ground and is frequently seen with a variety of oaks, often in situations that ecologists or botanists might refer to as “rich” woods. The trees can indeed become large, up to 100 feet tall (or taller) and with a trunk diameter of 3 feet or so. Really big, old individuals that are encountered tend to be hollow inside. And, they are subject to wind-throw in strong storms.

The wood of this tree is relatively light in weight, and pale in color. In the United States, it has been a major industrial source of clothespins. In fact, it turns out that the world’s largest clothespin industry was for a good long while located in Richwood, West Virginia, where my mom and dad went to high school. Clothespins now seem to be a relic of the past, and whenever you do see them, they tend to be plastic and brightly colored.

Anyway, this tree boasts additional features that also help make it one of the easiest learned and remembered trees of North America. Its leaves unfurl in the spring, somewhat silky, and eventually a bright, beautiful green. The leaf blades are prominently notched at the edges, and there will be a series of straight, parallel veins on each side of the midrib. The leaves turn a sort of pale yellow in the fall and remain attached to the twigs all winter long, eventually becoming a sort of silvery tan. Very attractive. If all those features aren’t enough, check out the winter buds. They are prominently pointed and shiny brown. No other tree has buds quite like these.

One or two last things. The flowers are tiny and unimpressive, segregated as male and female. The female flower eventually will form a small, somewhat spiny husk, and when the little dry fruits are ripe, will split open, dropping small, hard, three-angled nuts down to the ground. Critters love them. And a certain brand of baby food (and chewing gum) was named after them.

Answer: “Beech,” Fagus grandifolia.

John Nelson is the retired curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. As a public service, the herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit herbarium.biol.sc.edu or email johnbnelson@sc.rr.com.

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