Mystery Plant

Angela Boney

This week’s Mystery Plant has a pleasant fragrance, and its fruits are a big hit with wildlife. However, it’s so invasive that it crowds out valuable native species, and it’s difficult to eradicate.

“Bad plant, bad!”

Now, it’s not a very good idea to speak out loud to shrubbery, unless you are sure that nobody can hear you. But that is about the most appropriate thing you could say to this gorgeous plant, which has seduced many of us into growing it for its great ornamental value, and for its usefulness as a source of wildlife food.

This is an introduced shrub, yet another species taken out of eastern Asia and now out of control over here. It may grow to be 15 feet tall, and it can be very bushy. It was intentionally introduced into North America many years ago and now has spread throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada, and it continues its aggressive march into the Western states.

This is a deciduous shrub, losing all its leaves in the winter. The summer foliage is quite handsome, the leaf blades football- or egg-shaped, shiny and glittering on the lower surface, where it’s equipped with thousands of tiny silvery scales, these forming a dense layer. (We say that such a scaly surface is “lepidote,” like a butterfly’s wing.) Flowers are produced in the spring on twigs in little axillary clusters, or umbels. Each flower presents us with four fused sepals, forming a pale-yellow tube, flaring into four lobes at the tip. (There aren’t any petals.) Four tiny stamens are inside, along with the pistil. The flowers are quite fragrant. Following the blossoms, green ovaries develop that swell and ripen during the summer, until they are translucent red-orange, and soft. They are quite attractive, glowing in the autumn sunlight.

The good news: rapidly growing shrub (good for bird nests and shelter for wildlife); fragrant flowers; beautiful fruits that critters like to eat.

The bad news: rapidly growing shrub, spreading like crazy after the critters eat up the fruits, and taking over the woods.

Folks, despite the good intentions involved in bringing this pretty shrub to our shores, it was indeed a mistake. The shrubs are nearly uncontrollable in a number of outdoor settings, especially in the Southeast. It can be successful only at the expense of less pushy native species, and these natives usually get crowded out, eventually disappearing. Unfortunately, people are still planting this pest for its ornamental value, as well as for its heavy fruit production, the fruits eaten by various wildlife species.

The problem is that this species is easily spread by seeds, after they are eaten and moved elsewhere by a bird (or whatever), and so uncontrolled secondary introductions take place, over and over. Once a forest ecosystem is infested with this plant, it is difficult and expensive to control it — or eradicate it.

There are so many other native shrubs that are not nearly as invasive as this one. If you are looking for a flowering shrub with both fragrance and wildlife value, consider talking it over with the friendly botanists at your local herbarium, or with your favorite Extension agent, or perhaps with the staff at a native-plants nursery. But don’t use this plant.

Answer: “Autumn olive,” “Silverberry,” Elaeagnus umbellata.

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.org, call (803) 777-8196 or email nelson@sc.edu.

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