Modiola caroliniana comes from a large and diverse plant family, the Mallows (Malvaceae). The family includes 243 genera; trees like the basswood, foods like okra, the globally important crop – cotton, the large flowered Hibiscus genus, and lowly lawn weeds like the Carolina Bristlemallow. The latter does have beautiful flowers. But they are tiny – less than one half inch across.
Modiola caroliniana is somewhat of an outlier – it is a monotypic genus, meaning that there is only one species in the genus. And it does not have some of the major characteristics of the rest of the family. The flowers of the Mallow family are usually large and the stamens and style protrude from the center of the flower. This is illustrated by the photographs below of Kosteletzkya pentacarpos (Saltmarsh Mallow) and Hibiscus moscheutos (Crimsoneyed Rosemallow). However, Modiola has tiny flowers and the stamens and style are not protrusive.
Modiola also has an odd distribution in North Carolina. It is almost absent from the Mountains and the Coastal Plain, and is reported from only two small, disconnected clusters of counties in the Piedmont region. It is native to North America and can be either a perennial or an annual. Well adapted to its niche of lawns and disturbed areas, it is a prostrate, spreading plant that roots at the nodes.
Early leaves are not yet deeply cut, but have a rounded appearance. The hairy bristles can be seen along the stems.
Leaves that appear later in the spring can be deeply divided. Bristles can be seen on the bracts of the opening flower bud.
The fruiting head has a wheel-like appearance. Thus the botanical name for the genus is based on the Latin for the hub of a wheel – modiolus.
In a closer view of the center of the flower, the deep red nectar guides can be seen. Nectar guides are markings or colors that assist the pollinators in finding either nectar or pollen. In sunny conditions, the nectar guides in Modiola can be vivid and striking. The Common Checkered Skipper, the major pollinator, has no difficulty locating this tiny, bright orange flower.