University of South Carolina

John Nelson
The nearly 125,000 specimens in the A. C. Moore Herbarium serve as a rich resource for John Nelson’s weekly “Mystery Plant” column.

Planting USC’s flag throughout the Southeast

By Steven Powell,, 803-777-1923

John Nelson’s newspaper column has reached a lot of people over the years. “Mystery Plant,” now printed in 16 newspapers and available on even more online outlets, has been a part of communities throughout the Southeast for more than a decade.

His descriptive text of a plant, typically indigenous to the Southeast and accompanied by a photo, is written in a style that invites the reader to guess the species, which is revealed at the bottom of the column. The column (such as this entry in the Times and Democrat) also offers readers the opportunity to submit plant photos, descriptions or specimens to USC’s A. C. Moore Herbarium – where Nelson serves as curator – for free identification.

“In 2012, we had over 450 requests for plant identifications,” Nelson said. “I don’t get paid extra for it, it’s just something I came up with. This herbarium is a part of the Department of Biological Sciences and the College of Arts and Sciences, and it should be doing its part in assisting the public.”

Producers in public television have taken notice as well. Since 2008, Nelson has been a regular guest on South Carolina ETV’s weekly “Making It Grow!” program, offering a video version of some of his most popular “Mystery Plant” columns.

Nelson sees providing outreach to the public as an important component of the university’s mission. “Part of what we’re doing here is showing that this institution is approachable,” he said.

That outreach effort is on top of his full-time job, curating the dried, catalogued plant specimens carefully housed in steel cases in the herbarium, located in the Coker Life Sciences building. “Effectively, this is a plant museum, and we have almost 125,000 specimens,” he said.

The herbarium, founded by Andrew Charles Moore in 1907, primarily contains plants from South Carolina, but it holds some international specimens as well. The mounting area includes stacks of samples which have been pressed and thoroughly dried, with each plant nestled between sheets of wax paper within folded newspaper pages that typically come from the city of origin. Sprinkled among pages from The Aiken Standard, The State and The Post and Courier, you’ll also find newsprint written in German, Farsi and Vietnamese.

The herbarium is hardly a static repository. It serves as an essential scientific resource for its frequent visitors. Nelson himself uncovered a new species of Stachys (a genus in the mint family) through a careful examination of specimens in the herbarium and elsewhere. The first example was collected on the banks of the Santee River in 1977 and stored at the herbarium shortly thereafter. He’s in the process of submitting the documentation to establish the species as an official entry in the scientific literature.

And given that he and his co-discoverer will be asked to submit the name for the new species, a properly timed release of the corresponding “Mystery Plant” column will make it a world debut.

News and Internal Communications

Posted: 02/13/13 @ 1:40 PM | Updated: 02/13/13 @ 1:46 PM | Permalink



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