Plant Science

What’s in a name?

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. So much is true, but we gain a lot of information about a thing by knowing its name. So what if its name is misleading? When an object is incorrectly named, this is called a misnomer, and misnomers aren’t uncommon in natural history. As our understanding of the natural world has improved, and the relationships between species mapped, we’ve found that our ancestors have incorrectly labelled many plants and animals. While this doesn’t change the wonder or beauty of these species, it does hide some of the interesting history behind them.

Evening Primrose

With an instantly recognisable name, Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) is, perhaps, more famous than the plant from which its name was taken. Evening Primroses are not Primroses at all, nor are they Roses. Primroses belong to the family Primulaceae. On the other hand, Evening Primroses belong to the family Onagraceae. If you look at the two side-by-side in the images above, you’ll see that they have a different number of petals, with Primroses having 5 and Evening Primroses having 4, their inflorescences (the flowering part of the plant) are structurally different, with Evening Primroses having a collection of flowers at the end of a stem and Primroses having only one, and their leaves are shaped differently, with Primroses having iconically wrinkly leaves (I think they look like elephant skin). Amazingly, however, Evening Primroses were named by English colonisers in North America, because they reminded them of the Primroses from back home.

The “Evening” aspect of their names is also a little tenuous. They were named Evening Primroses because of their flowers open in the evening. However, this isn’t the case in most species of Evening Primrose. So apart from them not being Primroses and not always opening in the evening, what do they have to offer? For hundreds of years before its “discovery” by Europeans, indigenous tribes from North American had been using the plant as a food and medicinal crop. Practically the entire plant is edible. The roots can be eaten like potatoes, the leaves can be eaten in salads, the flowering stem can be pickled or fried, but most famously, a therapeutic oil can be pressed and obtained from its seeds. It is believed that the beta-linolenic and gamma-linolenic acids in this oil that give it its therapeautic nature. Evening Primrose oil has been used to relieve premenstral syndome and other hormonal imbalance symptoms, treat skin irritations, including rosacea, and to encourage hair growth.

Tulip Poplar

The Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is a double misnomer, in that it is neither a Tulip, nor is it a Poplar. Tulips (Tulipa sp.) are herbaceous, spring-blooming plants, with colourful, showy flowers, from the Lily family. Conversely, Tulip Poplars are one of the largest trees of the US east cost, from the Magnolia family. However, their flowers hold the key to half of the question as to how they gained their name. Tulip Poplars, like the rest of the Magnolia family, produce wonderful showy flowers that are similar in shape to tulips. How they gained the name “Poplar” is less clear. Comparing the leaf shapes in the two images above, Tulip Poplar leaves are large and have four, very obvious, lobes. Whereas, Poplar leaves are generally much smaller, triangular or circular and, very rarely, have small lobes. Where these two trees are similar, is in the gentle fluttering of their leaves. This behaviour in Tulip Poplars is reminiscent of Poplar leaves, and this minor detail is how they gained their name.

This species is also known by another name. In the Miami-Illinois language (Myaamia) of the indigenous Algonquian natives, the Tulip Poplar is known as “oonseentia” which, I might have misunderstood but, I think means “Canoe Tree” or “Canoewood”. The reason behind this name is, perhaps, much more straight forward. The Native Americans would use the trunks of these trees to build dugout canoes. While this name better reflects the history of this species, its uses and value to indigenous people, this name is nearly all but forgotten. It is hard to find much information about its use as a source for canoe wood. The Eiteljorg Museum recognised this, and in 2007, rewarded sculptor and conceptual artist, Gerald Clarke, an Eiteljorg Fellowship, with which he created signs in honour of native Miami people. One of these signs is for the Tulip Poplar, stating its Miami-Illinois name.

Traveller’s Palm

The Traveller’s Palm (Ravenala madagascariensis) is a fabulously extravagant plant. Its unusual fan shape makes it instantly recognisable, with long, thin petioles, each ending in a large, broad, paddle-shaped leaf. Of course, this plant isn’t actually a Palm. It belongs to the Birds of Paradise family (Strelitziaceae), rather than to the Palm family (Arecaceae). Although, it is forgivable to confuse it as one, as its leaf shape is reminiscent to that of a Palm tree. The “Traveller’s” aspect of its name could also be disputed. As it is endemic to Madagascar (endemic meaning, this the only location it is native to), it is hardly well travelled at all. Instead, the name “Traveller’s” was given to it, due to the fact that travellers would drink water that collected in its leaves.

What is truly incredible about the Traveller’s Palm, is that it is pollinated by lemurs. In my Common Columbine blog post, I introduced to you coevolution and pollination syndromes. This is, perhaps, another example of just that. It is believed that Ruffed Lemurs evolved long muzzles in order to access the nectar deep within the plants flowers, without damaging them. They then transfer the pollen from plant to plant on their noses. And if that isn’t the cutest thing you’ve read today, I don’t know what to tell you. But I’d also like to know what else you’ve been reading.

Image credits

Tulip poplar leaves: Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA / CC BY

Poplar: Image by Thomas B. from Pixabay

Tulip poplar flower: Dcrjsr / CC BY

Tulip flowers: © Cody Logan / Wikimedia Commons / “Tulips by clpo13”

Evening primrose: Image by Capri23auto from Pixabay

Traveller’s palm: Stan Shebs / GNU Free Documentation License

Palm trees: Image by Quang Nguyen vinh from Pixabay


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