What’s in a Name?

Part One: Common vs. Scientific Names


When I was a kid growing up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, sumac seemed to be everywhere, with its long, spindly stems, big, spreading compound leaves, and fuzzy red berries. I always found the plant beautiful, and had heard that First Nations people used the berries in a refreshing drink that tastes like lemonade (which is true… here’s a simple recipe). But often, we kids were warned by adults that this was “poison sumac,” not to be touched because it would give us itchy, burning rashes, like poison ivy did. In fact, plenty of people would cut down any nascent stands to prevent this menace from spreading. We were taught to fear the stuff.


THIS is the stuff you need to look out for. Via The Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora

It was many years later before I learned that the red-berried sumacs I grew up with were not only harmless, but were also not closely related to the poisonous plant being referred to, which, as it turns out, has white berries and quite different leaves. Scientifically speaking, our innocent shrub is Rhus typhina, the staghorn sumac, while the rash-inducing plant is called Toxicodendron vernix. Not even in the same genus. Cautious parents were simply being confused by the similarity of the common names.


This story illustrates one of the ironies of common names for plants (and animals). Though they’re the way nearly everyone thinks of and discusses species, they’re without a doubt the most likely to confuse. Unlike scientific (Latin) names, which each describe a single species and are, for the most part, unchanging, a single common name can describe more than one species, can fall in and out of use over time, and may only be used locally. Also important to note is that Latin names are based on the taxonomy, or relatedness, of the species, while common names are usually based on either appearance, usage, or history.


This isn’t to say that common names aren’t valuable. Because common names describe what a plant looks like or how it is used, they can convey pertinent information. The common names of plants are also sometimes an important link to the culture that originally discovered and used the species, as in North America, where native plants all have names in the local languages of First Nations people. It seems to me, although I have no hard evidence to back it up, that these original names are now more often being used to form the Latin name of newly described species, giving a nod to the people who named it first, or from whose territory it came.


One high profile case of this in the animal world is Tiktaalik roseae, an extinct creature which is thought to be a transitional form (“missing link”) between fish and tetrapods. The fossil was discovered on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, and the local Inuktitut word “tiktaalik”, which refers to a type of fish, was chosen to honour its origin.


But back to plants… Unlike staghorn sumac and poison sumac, which are at least in the same family of plants (albeit not closely related within that family), sometimes very distinct species of plants can end up with the same common name through various quirks of history. Take black pepper and bell or chili peppers. Black pepper comes from the genus Piper, and is native to India, while hot and sweet peppers are part of the genus Capsicum. Botanically, the two are quite distantly related. So why do they have the same name? Black pepper, which bore the name first, has been in use since ancient times and was once very highly valued. The confusion came about, it would seem, when Columbus visited the New World and, finding a fruit which could be dried, crushed, and added to food to give it a sharp spiciness, referred to it as “pepper” as well.

A black peppercorn. Easy to confuse with a chili pepper, I guess? Via: Wikimedia Commons


Another interesting, historically-based case is that of corn and maize. In English-speaking North America, corn refers to a single plant, Zea mays. In Britain and some other parts of the Commonwealth, however, “corn” is used to indicate whatever grain is primarily eaten in a given locale. Thus, Zea mays was referred to as “Indian corn” because it was consumed by native North Americans. Over time, this got shortened to just “corn”, and became synonymous with only one species. Outside of Canada and the United States, the plant is referred to as maize, which is based on the original indigenous word for the plant. In fact, in scientific circles, the plant tends to be called maize even here in North America, to be more exact and avoid confusion.


Not Spanish, not a moss. Via: Wikimedia Commons

And finally, for complete misinformation caused by a common name, you can’t beat Spanish moss. That wonderful gothic stuff you see draped over trees in the American South? That is neither Spanish, nor a moss. It is Tillandsia usneoides, a member of the Bromeliaceae, or pineapple family, and is native only to the New World.


And that wraps up my very brief roundup of confusing common names and why they should be approached with caution. In part two, I’ll discuss Latin names, how they work, and why they aren’t always stable and unchanging, either.


There are SO many more interesting and baffling common names out there. If you know of a good one, let me know in the comments!


*Header image via the University of Guelph Arboretum

The Plant That Time Forgot (Welwitschia mirabilis)

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Welwitschia mirabilis

A.K.A.: Welwitschia

Vital Stats:

  • Welwitschia is a gymnosperm, like pines or firs, and thus reproduces via male and female cones
  • Considered a “living fossil”
  • Named after one of its discoverers, Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch
  • In mature specimens, the woody stem can grow up to one metre (3.3’) across

Found: In the Namib desert, along the west coast of Namibia and Angola

It Does What?!

Restricted to a tiny, arid swath of African desert, Welwitschia mirabilis represents the last remaining species of a very unusual lineage of plants. Close relatives met with extinction over the aeons, while welwitschia, tucked away in its remote and harsh desert range with little competition, just kept going. The fact that the species is alone, not just in its genus, but also in its family and order (the two ranks above genus in plant systematics), speaks to just how distantly related to any other living plant it is. For the sake of comparison, the Rosales, the order to which roses, apples, and pears belong, contains around 7700 species in 9 families and 260 genera. So original and captivating is welwitschia among plants that it has been the subject of more than 250 scientific articles since it was first described in 1863.

A mere infant. But probably still older than you are.
(Via: Lizworld.com)

So what makes this thing so weird? Well, plants typically have what’s called an apical meristem at the tips of their stems and/or branches. You can think of this as a clump of stem cells that keeps dividing, throwing off new leaves and buds in its wake. If you cut off the apical meristem, the plant must either develop a new one elsewhere, or stop producing new tissue.

In welwitschia, this isn’t the case. At the beginning of the plant’s life, the apical meristem produces just two leaves, and then dies. The plant will never grow another leaf, which is much more surprising when you consider that it may well live for more than a thousand years. How do you get through a millennium with only two leaves?! The answer is, these aren’t ordinary leaves. Uniquely, welwitschia’s two strap-like leaves have a band of meristematic tissue built into their base, which means they can continue to elongate outward indefinitely. The leaves will continue to grow at a rate of around half a millimetre (0.02”) per day for as long as the plant lives. If you’re thinking that this must mean leaves that are several hundred metres long, unfortunately, no, they aren’t. The leaves are abraded away by sand storms and eaten by passing animals. Even in the best case scenario, the cells at the leaf tips have a maximum lifetime of about ten years (still pretty good for a leaf…). What’s more, the leaves tend to get frayed and split over time, and end up looking like a lot more than just two leaves. Despite all the punishment, though, each leaf can reach a length of up to four metres (13’), giving a mature welwitschia a width of up to eight metres (26’) across.

Welwitschia’s answer to the pinecone.
(Image by Friedrich A. Lohmuller)

As you might expect from a long-lived relic of the past, there aren’t a lot of these plants around. For once, this has less to do with human disturbance than natural circumstances. Over millions of years, the range where welwitschia grows has dried out considerably, and in fact continues to get drier even now. Today, the plant relies largely on fog to meet its water needs, restricting its range to a thin strip of desert coastline where fogs occur regularly. Unlike cactuses or succulents, welwitschia has never evolved the ability to store water. Also problematic is a fungus, Aspergillus niger, which frequently infects and destroys germinating seeds. These factors together can mean that a welwitschia colony can sometimes go many years without successfully reproducing.

And of course, no threatened species would be complete without some human interference. In recent decades, unscrupulous collectors have removed plants from already small breeding populations, making it even more difficult to sustain their numbers. Interestingly, it’s noted in Wikipedia that plants in Angola are actually better protected from collecting than those in Namibia due to the higher concentration of landmines there.

So… landmines: bad for humans, good for endangered plants.

You think you have problems with split ends?
(Via: Natural History Museum)

Says Who?

  • The Gymnosperm Database
  • Dilcher et al. (2005) American Journal of Botany 92(8):1294-1310
  • Henschel & Seely (2000) Plant Ecology 150:7-26
  • Jacobson & Lester (2003) Journal of Heredity 94(3):212-217
  • Rodin (1958) American Journal of Botany 45(2):96-103

Killing Me Softly, or, The Fatal Embrace of the Strangler Fig

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Strangler Figs

A.K.A.: Ficus species

Vital Stats:

  • There are around 800 sp. of figs, over half of which are hemi-epiphytes, like stranglers
  • Around 10% of all vascular plants are epiphytes (about 25,000 species)
  • The trees which produce the figs we eat are terrestrial, and do not grow in other trees

Found: Tropical forests of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Australia

It Does What?!

What does it take to squeeze the life out of a full-grown tree? A lot of time and some very long roots, apparently. Many parasites eventually bring about the untimely death of their hosts, but few do it as slowly and as insidiously as the strangler fig.

Stranglers begin life as a tiny seed that leaves the back end of a bird and happens to land on a tree branch high in the rainforest canopy. The seed germinates, and the young fig begins to grow as an aerial plant, or epiphyte, taking its moisture from the air and its nutrients from the leaf litter on its branch. Thousands of plant species, including most orchids, grow in this manner. But then an odd thing begins to happen. The seedling produces a single long root. Very long. From tens of metres up in the canopy, this root grows all the way down to the ground. Many young stranglers will die before their questing root reaches the earth, but for those that make it, a connection is formed with the soil through which water and nutrients can be extracted. From this point on the great, towering giant which holds this tiny little interloper is in mortal danger.

The strangler fig, playing “harmless epiphyte.”
(Screenshot from The Private Life of Plants, BBC)

A secure connection to the soil allows the fig to speed up its growth and to begin sending more and more roots earthward. Rather than dropping straight down, like the initial root, these later organs will twine around the bark of the host tree. At first, the roots are tiny, like mere vines crawling over the host trunk. Over time, however, they thicken, covering more and more of the trunk’s surface. Where they touch or overlap, the roots actually fuse together, forming a mesh over the surface of the bark. Up above, the stem of the strangler is growing as well. It rises through and above the host branches, soaking up the light and leaving the other tree shaded and starved for energy.

In fact, this is a war fought on two fronts. As the starving host tree struggles to gather light energy to send downward from the leaves, it is also increasingly unable to bring water up from its roots. This is because the tree’s trunk continues to expand even as the strangler’s grip grows tighter around it. These opposing forces effectively girdle the tree, crushing the vascular tissues that carry moisture from the soil. Eventually, the battle is lost and the tree dies. Fortunately for the fig, its major investments in root growth have paid off – the dead host tree does not fall, taking the strangler with it. Instead, it simply rots where it stands. Finally, many years after its arrival on the scene, the strangler fig has achieved independence. It is now a free-standing tree, completely hollow and supported by its interwoven lattice of aerial roots.

The first root finds the ground.
(Screenshot from The Private Life of Plants, BBC)

So what happens when more than one strangler fig seed lands on a particular tree? Something quite unique… the roots of the different individuals fuse and form an organism which is indistinguishable from a single tree, except by molecular testing. These are what biologists refer to as ‘genetic mosaics.’ What’s more, the individuals actually begin to act like a single tree. You see, figs typically have staggered flowering times, such that it is unlikely for numerous trees in a small area to be in bloom at the same time. This helps in keeping their wasp symbionts well nourished. Once trees fuse, however, they seem to become physiologically linked as well, with researchers reporting that they bloom as a single individual.

The most hurricane-proof tree ever.
(Screenshot from The Private Life of Plants, BBC)

[Fun Fact: Some strangler fig species have very high growth rates, and huge individuals have actually been found engulfing abandoned buildings in the tropics.]

Says Who?

  • Harrison (2006) Journal of Tropical Ecology 22(4): 477-480
  • Perry & Merschel (1987) Smithsonian 17: 72-79
  • Schmidt & Tracey (2006) Functional Plant Biology 33: 465-475
  • Thomson et al. (1991) Science 254: 1214-1216
Don’t meditate under strangler figs.
(Via: Flickr, by vincenzooli)

The Bloodhounds of the Plant World (Cuscuta sp.)

(Via: Marine Science)

Common Names: Dodder, Goldthread, Witch’s Shoelaces

A.K.A.: Genus Cuscuta

Vital Stats:

  • Approximately 200 species
  • Part of the Convolvulaceae family, which includes morning glory and sweet potato
  • Only 15-20 species are considered to be problematic crop parasites

Found: Throughout temperate and tropical parts of the world

It Does What?!

We’ve discussed a few parasites on this blog already, and they’ve all been pretty typical of what comes to mind when we think of parasitic organisms- tiny, malignant little creatures that invade the host’s body, steal its resources, and, in some cases, eat its tongue. But when we think ‘parasite,’ we don’t usually think ‘plant.’ As it turns out, there are an estimated 4500 parasitic species just among the angiosperms, or flowering plants. Among them, dodders have to be one of the strangest.

Found nearly throughout the world, these vine-like plants begin as tiny seeds that germinate late in the spring or summer, after their potential host plants have established themselves. The young seedling has no functional roots and little or no ability to photosynthesize, so initially, it must make do with what little nutrition was stored in its seed. This isn’t much, so the plant has only a few days to a week to reach a host before it dies. To better its chances, the dodder stem swings around in a helicopter-like fashion as it grows, trying to hit something useful.

Much more impressive is the plant’s other method of finding suitable hosts- a sense of smell. Recent research has found that, uniquely among plants, the dodder can actually detect odours given off by surrounding plants and grow towards them. In experiments, the seedlings were found to grow toward the scent of a tomato, even if no actual plant was present. What’s more, they are capable of showing a preference among hosts. Presented with both tomato plants, which make excellent hosts, and wheat plants, which make poor hosts, seedlings were found to grow toward the aroma of tomatoes much more often. Like herbivores, they can use scent to forage amongst a variety of species for their preferred prey.

Smells like lunch… even to other plants.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Once a host plant is found, the dodder begins to twine itself around the stem and to form haustoria (singular: haustorium). These are like tiny tap roots that pierce the host’s stem and actually push between the living cells inside until they reach the vascular system. Once there, the haustoria enter both the xylem (where water and minerals move upward from the roots) and the phloem (where sugars from photosynthesis move around the plant). From these two sources, the dodder receives all its nutrients and water, freeing it from any need for a root system, or even a connection to the soil. And since it doesn’t need to capture solar energy, all green pigment fades from the parasite, and it turns a distinctive yellow or red colour. Leaves aren’t necessary either, which is why the plant is essentially nothing but stem, explaining its common name of “witch’s shoelaces.”

Not what you want to see when you head out to weed the garden.
(Via: County of Los Angeles)

Once it gets comfortable on its new host, the dodder can grow at a rate of several centimetres a day (impressive for a plant) and produce stems of a kilometre or more in length, quickly overrunning an area. It can also attach itself to additional hosts – hundreds, in fact – which is problematic, because at this point it becomes the plant equivalent of a dirty shared needle. Since the vasculature of the hosts is connected, any virus present in one host can be freely transferred to any other. This ability, coupled with its affinity for potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, and several other important crops, makes dodder a major nuisance for many farmers. And since it’s able to regenerate from just a single, tiny haustorium left in a host plant, it’s really hard to get rid of. There’s always a flip side, though; in some ecosystems, dodder can actually maintain biodiversity by preferentially parasitising the more competitive plants, allowing the weaker ones to survive. It seems dodder may also be the Robin Hood of the plant world.

[Extra Credit: Here’s a video showing how dodder can completely take over a group of nettle plants, complete with ominous soundtrack. Narrated by the fantastic Sir David Attenborough.]

Says Who?

  • Costea (2007-2012) Digital Atlas of Cuscuta (Convolvulaceae). Wilfred Laurier University Herbarium, Ontario, Canada
  • Furuhashi et al. (2011) Journal of Plant Interactions 6(4): 207-219
  • Hosford (1967) Botanical Review 33(4): 387-406
  • Pennisi (2006) Science 313: 1867
  • Runyon et al. (2006) Science 313:1964-1967

    Cuscuta: 1, Acacia: 0
    (Via: Wikimedia Commons)