A: I believe the plant is a perennial called Lizard’s tail, Saururus cernuus. Lizard’s-tail is a common emersed plant. It can be found as far north as Canada and west to Texas and to south Florida. Lizard’s tail is often found growing in large clumps along the edges of ponds or in wetlands. The erect plant grows to one to two feet tall, in freshwater marshes and swamps nearly throughout Florida. It blooms in the summer but with our very mild winter, you are seeing it bloom now. Lizard’s-tail has a bottlebrush spike of white flowers. It is typically six to eight inches long but can be longer. The flower spike arches above the leaves of the plant. After maturity, the flowers become a string of nutlets resembling a lizard’s tail. It can grow in full sun to partial shade and spreads by underground rhizomes.
A: Thanks for bringing in a specimen of this large plant. It most likely belongs to the genus, Crotalaria. There are approximately 600 species of Crotalaria worldwide. I believe your plant is a Showy rattlebox. If it is Showy rattlebox, Crotalaria spectabilis, then it is native to southern Asia but now can be found worldwide. In the United States it occurs from Missouri to Virginia south to Florida and Texas. Showy rattlebox can reach heights up to six feet with bright showy pea-like flowers up to an inch wide. These flowers will bloom in large clusters along a tall stalk which is where it gets the name “showy.” The rattlebox name comes from the sound the seed makes in the pod once it has become dry and mature. This annual legume is native to Indomalaysia and was introduced to the United States as a soil building cover crop on sandy soils. Showy rattlebox can be poisonous to livestock, particularly when seeds are consumed. Like other Crotalaria species, showy rattlebox contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which is present in greatest quantity in the seeds. All livestock including poultry are subject to poisoning. Symptoms include photosensitization and liver disease within a few days to 6 months following consumption. Showy rattlebox has been a problem for farmers. Since it is an annual legume, it produces large numbers of seed as this is its only means of propagation. Showy rattlebox prefers open and disturbed sites generally because these sites tend to be poor nutritionally.
I consulted the University of Florida Herbarium to be sure my guess was correct and they agree the wildflower is probably a false dragonhead in the genus, Physostegia. Physostegia is from Greek physa “bladder” and stege “covering”, in reference to the somewhat inflated a calyx. A calyx is the green leaf-like sepals which enclose the petals and forms a protective layer around a flower in bud. Some species in this genus go by the name obedient-plant because the flowers remain temporarily in place when pushed to one side. False Dragonhead is best planted in rich, moist soil in full sun or light shade. False Dragonhead has 1 inch tubular flowers tightly clustered in long spikes at the top of stems and grows wild in moist ground in prairies, edges of glades and along streams. The leaves are opposite with toothed edges, up to 5 inches long, becoming smaller in size as the flower head develops. The stem is four-sided (roughly square in cross section,) as is typical of members of the mint family. False dragonhead is sometimes used as an ornamental and the “Obedient Plant” name really doesn’t apply to the plant in cultivated gardens as these plants can be aggressive colonizers. Regarding picking or removing wildflowers illegally from wildlife areas here is the USDA Forest service comment: “Almost all wildflowers are fragile and many wilt and perish soon after being picked. Over the years, the repercussions of wildflower picking by unthinking people go far beyond the loss of the flowers themselves. A critical chain of events is triggered for years to come once wildflowers are lost. We don’t often realize it, but wildflowers support entire ecosystems for pollinators, birds, and small animals on a micro scale. Butterflies and other insects, small birds, and animals depend on seeds, nectar, and pollen for their food supply and life support system. In addition, some pollinators are not very mobile or have very small home ranges or depend on just one species of plant and die once their habitat has been destroyed.” The complete article, “Wildflower Ethics and Native Plants”: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethics/