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What Makes a Plant False?

Photo by: Shane Bugeja

After a successful plant sale, our Master Gardeners met at Glenwood Gardens for our monthly meeting. It was one of only a few days in May in which it was not raining, and it was a good time to take time and observe the plants in the midst of blooming. On the shadier part of the gardens was a dwarf Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum humile) that was nestled between a few other woodland plants. I was curious, and asked if there was any “false” Solomon’s seal nearby (Maianthemum species), as I was more used to seeing them than the “true” ones (Polygonatum species). Both true and false Solomon’s seals have much in common. They tend to like growing in shaded woodlands, have a peculiar arching leaf arrangement, and even belong to the same family, Asparagaceae (Asparagus). At one point, a Master Gardener asked, “Why do people even call a plant species false?” At first it seemed a simple question, but soon after I began to think heavily on it.

Alas, this question is only relevant for its common name. Unlike a scientific, Latin name, it is much harder to pinpoint who first named the plant or why they thought one is a “false” version of another. However, Solomon’s seal may be relatively straightforward. True Solomon’s seal is named after the bud scar, the spot on its rhizome (underground root) where the foliage dies back in the fall. These scars are circular with an unusual pattern, not unlike an ancient signet ring used to seal documents. The saying goes this “ring” resembles the biblical King Solomon’s, as the bud scar allegedly contains Hebrew script. While false Solomon’s seal strongly resembles its cousin aboveground, it does not have such a distinctive mark on its rhizomes. The reproductive structures also differ between the two; with true Solomon’s seal possessing tube-like flowers all the way up its stem while false has a cluster of starry flowers at its end. This is why some call false Solomon’s seal "Solomon's Plume" instead.

Other false/true name pairs are harder to deduce their origin. My personal theory is plants native to North or South America are likelier to be nicknamed false simply because Europeans called them after what they observed in the Old World. A great example of this is the dandelion. The weedy dandelion you see all over the landscape, Taraxacum officinale, is considered the true species and native to Europe/Asia. The false dandelion (Agoseris glauca) and the false prairie dandelion (Nothocalais cuspidate) are both found in Minnesota, native, and rarely cause any sort of issue to gardens or lawns. Seems to me that if anything should be labeled negatively it needs to be the Old World dandelion; especially when this weed causes overzealous homeowners to spray every herbicide known to man to remove them.

To test my theory, I used the United States Department of Agriculture’s PLANTS database to search for any native plant with “false” as part of its common name. I then did the same for non-native species present here in the United States. After correcting for thousands of total natives and total non-natives, there indeed was a slight percentage bias towards native plants being labeled “false”. It is important to note that this USDA database did not include all Old World plants, just the ones recorded in North America. This means the bias could be larger if it expanded to include all known European and Asian plant species.

Perhaps there is no real good answer to why some plants are labeled a false version of another. In some cases, one may be lacking a curious feature its doppelgänger possesses, like Solomon’s seal. Maybe it is just Europeans “discovering” familiar looking species, such as with dandelions. Whatever the case may be, we must remember that plants, even the “false” ones, play an important role in their native habitat. Whatever we humans call them it should not disregard their impact to the world around us.

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