Lizard’s Tail

09 Mar

Lizard Tail

Saururus cernuus


Think of a name having the letter “u” in it 5 times, uuuuuh, not so many.  Saururus cernuus translates as nodding lizard tail, and the arched tapering inflorescence fits the name.  Here’s another annoying question: what do Lizard Tails and alligators have in common?  Yes, they both live in the same habitat as Pogo, and more interestingly they both belong to a two-species genus where one species lives in Eastern North America and the other hangs its hat in eastern Asia.  Divorced couples like that have long fascinated biologists as “Eastern Asian-Eastern North American Disjuncts.”  They are separated relicts from the Miocene Epoch 23-5 million years ago when distributions were more or less contiguous across the Northern Hemisphere.  The primary connection was a Russian-Alaskan land bridge, now the Bering Strait.

Lizards Tail flower spike (by JB)

A colorful species related to Lizard’s Tail and familiar to gardeners is Chameleon Plant Houttuynia cordata.

Readers familiar with Kava Kava may see or smell resemblance to LT in the plant form, leaf shape, inflorescence, and root beer-licorice fragrance upon being crushed.  They are vaguely related.  Kava Kava is a member of the Pepper Family, where Lizard’s Tail has been placed by some taxonomists.  A separate segregate family Saururaceae is the treatment in most contemporary references.  As with Kava Kava, Saururus has a substantial history in traditional medicine.  Not to bore you with a list of every way the plants have assuaged some disgusting ailment, what’s more interesting is applications to treat sores and wounds characterize the American and Chinese species alike.  And as with Kava Kava, Lizard’s Tail is reputed to be sedative.  Also noteworthy are applications to relieve pain, with modern research confirming neurological activity.

That showy white arched inflorescence has specialized insect-adaptations, including UV patterns invisible to mere mortals and floral fragrance.  Yet one study in Louisiana showed most of the pollination to be by wind, at least there and then.  How many species are adapted to insects and to wind?  The flowers are protogynous (= female, then male) and do not self-pollinate much, if at all.  When pollen from the same individual plant is transferred to the stigma, the pollen is recognized as “no good” and is murdered summarily.  The floral spikes are dragon-fly landing platforms, and the big bugs kick up a cloud of pollen.  That might be insect-assisted wind-pollination.

Flowering along the spike proceeds gradually like a burning sparkler, keeping pollination activity going for weeks.  As the spike matures into the fruiting stage, it straightens out and releases tiny “nutlets” resembling the small dry fruits of other aquatic plants, such as Alisma, Echinodorus, Sagittaria, and sedges.  Presumably such little achenes and nutlets cling to or pass through waterfowl.  Of course they float too and root, as do pieces of the extensive rhizome.

The spike straightens in fruit (by JB).


Posted by on March 9, 2012 in Lizard's Tail


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2 responses to “Lizard’s Tail

  1. mudfish

    March 11, 2012 at 6:31 am

    One of my fav-o-rites to encounter, a mess of them flowering in the swamp. Very pretty in the patchy sunlight!

  2. George Rogers

    March 11, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    Thanks Mudfish. Sorry I missed you durng the wetland workshop in JD. My mother had a fall the night before with surgery that day (recovered ok), so I ran in and out of the workshop in a rush.


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