Nature Journal: Botany and Plant Identification

Anyone who leads field trips for plant identification inevitably accumulates a set of corrected ideas – favorite topics that conjure up favorite words and memories. These must be raised against all odds. Here are several of mine. They’re a little weird, but if you find something you like, don’t hesitate to pass it on.

According to the theory of “leaf fruit signaling” species such as poison ivy, Virginia creeper, black gum, sasafrass, spice bush, dogwood, sumac and wild grapes produce early foliage coloring. late August to mid-September, while most of the forest is still green, so as to attract migrating birds to early-ripening, high-energy fruits and thus ensure seed distribution. Color is the language of leaves.

Scarlet seeds exuding from pocket-shaped “receptacles” in magnolia cones do not immediately fall to the ground for shade under parent trees. Suspended for days on high-tension rubbery ties, the seeds can be distributed far and wide by migrating birds fed on highly tested lipid fats. Vascular flora describe the ties as “filamentous hairs”, “stretchy threads” or “funicular strands”. A quote in the OED compares them to “funis” or umbilical cords. ”

Why do the sour woods meander upward through the canopy… veering here and there… with curved trunks and curved branches? Remember that even if it is the only species of Ericaceae that aspires to be trees, sour woods have not yet forgotten their shrubby origins.

Are hemlock tips naturally curved in the same direction?

Are hemlock tips naturally curved to make perches for birds?

Are hemlock tips bent abnormally by birds looking for perches?

Are hemlock tips favored by a certain bird?

The scientific names of many plants are absolutely wonderful… a couple of words with resonances that Pavarotti could sing in the opera seria: Tiarella cordifolia! … Xanthoriza simplissima! … Passionflower embodied! … Cimicifuga racemosa! … Lonely antennas! … Boehmeria cylindrica! … Hydrophyllum canadense! … Dendrolycopodeum obscurum! … Polystichum acrostichoides!

Preceding Bartram by about a thousand years, the Cherokees were our first botanists.

The basic provisions evolve in particular landscapes. Nothing garish like the Western tribes prefer in color, dance, or attire for the Cherokees … and today isn’t always a good day to die. White oak and river cane splints come in four colors: yellow (shrub with yellow root); reddish orange (blood root); black (butternut walnut); and brown (black walnut). But beware… butternut is now rare… if the black of your new basket is too shiny it’s shoe polish… and the joke is on you!

What is a vine? Have you thought about this lately? A vine represents a growth strategy that allows certain plants to use other plants or objects for support. The term “structural parasite” sometimes appears in the literature. The purpose of the vines is to gain a competitive advantage, whether it’s a hook or a crook… as it was. You might remember that tragic ballad about the woodbine who fell in love with a morning glory (“but she curls up on the left and he on the right”) whose offspring grew straight up and fell? And you are no doubt familiar with the old argument that the vines twist right north of the equator and left below? I’m told there is a secret list of at least 20 species that intermingle in one or the other.

The interior of a hummingbird’s nest is always lined with Lilliputian tufts of rusty hairs which they know to be found at the base of each pavilion on the sterile blades of Osmunda cinnamomea.

Blue is God’s favorite color.

George Ellison is an award-winning naturalist and writer. His wife, Elizabeth Ellison, is a watercolourist and stationer with a gallery-studio in Bryson City. Contact them at or or write to PO Box 1262, Bryson City, NC 28713.