What’s in a Word?

An NPR story I heard this morning got me thinking about the nature of language and how words conjure up certain images to each of us that give them their symbolic meaning. While I don’t want to dive down this linguistic rabbit-hole, I mention the story because it got me thinking about the associations many hold about botanical terms. While many have no associations with words like “Samara,” “drupe,” “aril,” or “pappas,” when we hear words like “flower,” “tree,” “leaf,” or “fruit,” all of our minds are able to conjure up an image. While we each associate an image with these words, that image is unique to each individual. When I hear “tree,” what I picture will be different from what you picture, yet we still understand one another, as we have the ability to extrapolate our image–whether it’s an oak, a maple, or a sycamore–and understand the category of containing many manifestations of the word. The study of botany challenges to expand our repertoire of associations to new reaches, learning a whole slew of botany-specific terms (for an interesting take on this expansion of vocabulary look at this Howard Nemerov poem), but what I have been very interested in as of late are the manifestations of a word that challenge the boundaries of what we normally apply that word to. I remember, for example, the first time I came across Bear or Squirrel Corn (a parasitic plant that David Haskell recently wrote so elegantly about), and not knowing whether what I was seeing was a plant, a fungus, or something defying any of those traditional classifications. To find out it was a plant expanded my understanding of what constitutes a “plant.”

With the proliferation of spring wildflowers, especially in Shakerag Hollow, I have been thinking about the term “flower,” the associations we have with it, and those flowers that don’t conform to the type image of a flower that the word conjures for most of us. While when we hear the word flower, many of us imagine something upright, showy, and open–like a rose, a poppy, or blodroot–here are a huge range of flower types and structures that challenge our conception of the term. There are the parasitic plants that bear their flowers on stalks without clorophyll like Pinesap–the pigment giving plants their green color, there are those that do not depend on showy coloration to attract pollinators like yellow mandarin or certain Jack-in-the-Pulpits, and then there are those who keep there flowers a well-guarded secret, putting them out on the underside of leaves, on the ground, or beneath the leaf litter. There are a number of flowers in our spring flora that fit into this last category, a couple of which are in the same family, the Aristolochiaceae, or Birthwort Family. One member of this family, Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) has a small flower emerging on the ground, subtle in coloration, that lies in wait for the beetles that pollinate it.

While the flower of the wild ginger may not be what comes to the mind of most when they hear the word “flower,” I find it beautiful in the way it challenges those conceptions, and the way it has adapted to finding an ecological niche all it’s own. Anyone can put out a showy flower with purple, pink, blue, or yellow to attract bees and other buzzing bugs, but it takes a true innovator to break that paradigm and utilize an important niche and an eager pollinator in the form of beetles.

Note the unique shape and position of the wild ginger's flower

Note the unique shape and position of the wild ginger’s flower

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Sewanee’s Basal Angiospems | Sewanee Herbarium

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