The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. All you can do is circle around and say it’s somewhere in there.
The truth is, as a sophomore in college, I received a “D” on my botany exam. Actually, things had gone rather well until the end of the term. I even had a student job assisting my botany professor in his research on goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). I counted the nodes on dried goldenrod specimens—thousands and thousands of nodes on thousands and thousands of specimens. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but it did pay an attractive $1.60 an hour. So I did it.
But then I fell in love, and my devotion to botany waned, especially my willingness to spend hours counting goldenrod nodes. In fact, after my inglorious performance on the exam, I decided my calling was English and avoided further possibility of embarrassment by choosing scientific ignorance over botany classes and a regular paycheck.
Forty years later (married all those years to the fellow who precipitated the disgraceful “D”), I recognize the folly of my decision to forego science. How can I call myself a knowledgeable gardener if I don’t know a tepal from a petal? Or what a node is?
Having written an entire article on species tulips (Pacific Horticulture, April 2001), referring to petals (which they don’t have) instead of tepals (which they do), I was only saved from well-deserved public humiliation by the grace of good editing. Now, just to assure you that I’ve learned my lesson: petals are, usually, the colorful parts of a flower, the parts that attract people as well as insects and birds as pollinators. All the petals together make up the corolla, an appropriate Latin derivative meaning “little crown.” Sepals are often green and are the parts that enclose a flower in bud, protecting the petals and other parts until the flower is ready to open. (Picture a scarlet rosebud, enclosed by pointed, green sepals before it opens.) Occasionally, the sepals become colorful like the petals; when there is no clear distinction between petals and sepals, these colorful petal-like parts of the flower are called tepals. Tulips have tepals. Seems simple enough.
But, of course, these definitions were created by people, not by plants, and plants don’t always choose to cooperate with botanical terminology. Fuchsias, for example, often have four colorful petals enclosed by four sepals of another color. My favorite is Fuchsia magellanica ‘Aurea’ (or ‘Genii’), whose flowers combine cerise red sepals (outside) and violet-red petals (inside); red stems and lime yellow foliage add to its appeal. Fuchsias have figured out how to join petal and sepal colors in alluring ways, and hybridizers have contributed a thousand or more named cultivars. I’m fond of fuchsias, so I have purchased a few more than a baker’s dozen, including one that promised to be particularly intriguing.
In 1998, a favorite catalog lured me into buying the curious Fuchsia excorticata by promising that it was “one of two species of Fuchsia native to New Zealand, and…possesses, unlike other fuchsias, an alternate leaf arrangement….Rising to 10’ or taller, it blossoms dependably for us in late summer with axillary, solitary flowers of the usual fuchsia shape in purplish green and dull reds. Of note, the bark, as its name implies, shreds off in beautiful shags of copper and brown—reason enough to grow it.”
It was nice of this plantsman to tell me just what excorticata means. And why not have a shrub with beautiful shags of copper bark? So, for a little more than three years, this intriguing plant has been growing in my woodland. At some moment during those years, this novice gardener became curious about phrases such as “alternate leaf arrangement” and “axillary flowers.” Brian Capon’s Botany for Gardeners (Timber Press, 1990) declares that an axillary bud is “located in an axil at the base of a leaf.” And, a bit more helpfully, that an axil is the “angle between the upper surface of a leaf and the stem to which it is attached.” When stems are formed, they divide into sections. “The segment of a stem to which leaves and axillary buds are attached” is the node. Oh. Nodes again.
I looked up pictures of leaf arrangements and discovered that leaves can grow out of two sides of the stem at the same node (opposite one another), or alternately up the stem on different sides (alternate), or in a whorled arrangement, around the stem, in the manner of a stiff, green tutu. I thought I could probably remember those three terms, even toured the garden categorizing the leaf arrangement of various plants. I was shocked to discover that my fancy fuchsia, F. excorticata, had opposite leaves, just like all my other fuchsias. A puzzling piece of evidence for the beginning botanist!
I was unsure if I bore responsibility for my treasure’s failure to look like I expected it to look. I watched it closely, waiting for it to flower, and began to study more carefully its bark. Finally, last year, it flowered. The blossoms were, indeed, axillary, but they were not solitary; nor were they “of the usual fuchsia shape in purplish-green and dull reds.” They were funny little groups of pink nubbins that opened to tiny, dirty-white disappointments. And the bark is, so far, well, just bark.
So there’s the first botany lesson: we gardeners need to learn a bit of botany so we can figure out what we don’t have in our gardens, or at least what we might not have. For, to be truthful, my exotic fuchsia might be growing somewhere else around here. Perhaps this species undergoes a sort of metamorphosis that turns it, as a teenager, into an alternate-leafed, richly colored wonder. How’s a beginning botanist to know what’s possible? I’ve only just begun to dabble in this discipline.
But already I can ask better questions. And that’s just what I’ll do the next time I see the fellow who wrote that tempting catalog description of Fuchsia excorticata.
For Further Reading
Readers interested in learning more about the basics of botany are urged to turn to page 13 for the review of The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms, a fine new book that will help the botanically challenged gardener become more comfortable with the science of plants. In addition, the following two books have helpful, illustrated glossaries:
Brickell, Christopher, and Judith Zuk, editors-in-chief. The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. New York: DK Publishing, Inc, 1996.
Griffiths, Mark. Index of Garden Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1994.
To better understand the naming of plants, consult these books:
Coombes, Allen J. Dictionary of Plant Names. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1994.
Hyam, Roger, and Richard Pankhurst. Plants and Their Names: A Concise Dictionary. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
For a more in-depth study of botany, particularly the function of the various parts of a plant, consider these books:
Capon, Brian. Botany for Gardeners. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1990.
Dowden, Anne Ophelia. From Flower to Fruit. New York: Thomas Y Crowell, 1984.
Meeuse, Bastiaan, and Sean Morris. The Sex Life of Flowers. New York: Facts On File Publications, 1984.
Northington, David K, and Edward L Schneider. The Botanical World. 2nd edition. Dubuque, IA: Wm C Brown Publishers, 1996.
Stearn William T. Botanical Latin: History, Grammar, Syntax, Terminology and Vocabulary. 4th edition. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1992.
Thomas, Barry. The Evolution of Plants and Flowers. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1981.
To learn the characteristics that place plants in specific families, choose these well-illustrated books:
Heywood, VH, consultant editor. Flowering Plants of the World. New York: Mayflower Books, 1978.
Perry, Frances. Flowers of the World. New York: Galahad Books, 1972.
Zomlefer, Wendy B. Guide to Flowering Plant Families. Chapel Hill, NC & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.