Question: “Why is a river so rich?”

Answer: “Because it has two banks.”

Yuck-yuck. My students used to love all those Dad-jokes I would spring on them. Of course, this one is a classic.

The word “rich” is also used for forests, or perhaps more colloquially, woods. “Rich woods” are always a great delight for visitation by naturalists because they tend to exhibit great amounts of living diversity: plants and critters.

A different way of considering “rich woods” would be to identify what causes, or allows, such diversity. Most ecologists and botanists would probably agree that a forest with a rich diversity is the result of a number of what we call “abiotic” features, especially the local geology and resultant soil characteristics, but also including climate and temperature.

So what does this little discussion have to do with our Mystery Plant? That’s easy. It grows in “rich woods.”

It is native to much of the eastern United States, all the way to Arkansas, and it is found in a variety of “rich” forest types, such as cool mountain slopes and shaded ravines and coves, but also in piedmont settings.

Here in South Carolina, I’ve only seen it a few times. When it is located, it can be seen forming large colonies.

In bloom, the plants are spectacular. Large basal leaves are compound, with many toothy leaflets. The smooth flowering stem will tower above the leaves, sometimes to 6 feet tall or so, commonly branched. Flowers are produced in the summer. Many flowers will be clustered in a dense wand-like arrangement. Each flower has sepals, a few petals, lots of stamens, and one pistil. As autumn cones along, the pollinated pistil will swell into a dry pod containing a few seeds. The pod is technically what we call a “follicle”¸ splitting open along a single line or “seam”, much like what happens with a milkweed pod.

This plant is a member of the buttercup family, although it doesn’t look like what normally think of as a buttercup. It features a wide variety of fairly complicated chemical compounds in its tissues. The rootstock has traditionally been used as a highly prized source of medicines, and for a variety of ailments.

The usage of this plants by native Americans soon became a common component of early pioneer’s medicine bags as an important “yarb”. These various compounds have had legitimate efficacy, but care should be taken in consuming it. Serious complications can result from overdosing.

These plants, due to their striking appearance in bloom, have been rendered into the horticultural trade, and are easy to acquire for you shady garden, as long as it’s not too hot.

You’ll be interested to know that this plant was once known (and still is, by a number of botanists) as a species within the genus Cimicifuga. This name, of course, has its origin in Latin, involving the words “bug” and “drive away”

Sure enough, this name suggests the ability of the plant’s foliage to drive away insects, perhaps stuffed into a mattress.

(Answer: “Bugbane,” “Black cohosh,” Actaea racemosa)

(Photo by Will Stuart

John Nelson is the retired curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or email johnbnelson@sc.rr.com.