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Mystery Plant: Don't rush past this simple stunner

“To be a dog, a mule, a cat, a fitchew, a toad, a lizard … I would not care.”

— William Shakespeare, “Troilus & Cressida, Vol. 1”

Actually I think it would be fun to be a lizard. The anoles around my house seem to have such fun on these warm days, snapping up flies and strutting their stuff along the edge of the porch. Lizards have a tough life, though; in the winter they retreat to protected nooks, only appearing on warm days when the sun shines on their hiding places. And now, when they are active, they are eagerly sought by my rapacious girls, Rosie and Hannah. (I’ll have to show you their picture some time.)

This anole (a.k.a “chameleon”) is native to our Southern states, and this one is climbing the stem of a native plant species. This plant likes wet places, and if you have ever spent time in a setting involving a farm pond or similar wetland, you have probably seen it.

This particular plant is but one of a large number of species that are usually called “rushes.” From your botany days, you probably remember the saying “Sedges have edges and rushes are round; grasses are hollow way up from the ground.” (Ahh, college. So long ago.) And it is true: the sedges (members of the family Cyperaceae) tend to have triangular, solid stems. Grasses (there are way more of them than sedges or rushes) have round stems which are hollow. And of course, there are the rushes, which have round stems which are basically solid within.

The point of all this is that these various sedges, rushes and grass species have confounded beginning botany students from time long past. It’s funny that this is true, because there are indeed so many ways in which the three families can easily be distinguished.

The plants that we call rushes here in the Southeast all belong to the genus Juncus. There are a lot of them, too, and they occupy a good many different kinds of habitats, often on wet ground (not always, though). And they are related — distantly — to members of the lily family, and exhibit miniature lily-like flowers, featuring three sepals and three petals (all practically identical), six stamens, and a “superior” ovary. The fruit of a rush is a tiny capsule, which, upon ripening, will split open releasing lots of tiny seeds.

This particular rush is probably the most common species of its genus, here in the South. It likes to form dense patches, with several dozen slick stems arising from the center. All of the flowers will be crowded in little clusters, which tend to hang from the upper part of the stem. As the spring turns into summer, the ovary of each flower will develop its single little capsule, which will be pretty much spherical, and turning pale brown. Eventually, it will be able to stand no more fuss, splitting open, as most capsules do, and releasing its tiny little seeds, to start up new plants.

Of course, that little lizard that you see here doesn’t care much about that. All it’s interested in is a nice, juicy fly.

Answer: “Tall rush,” Juncus effusus.


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