Names Of Wildflowers
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Wayne's Word Noteworthy Plant For July 1998

The Curious Names Of Wildflowers

Rational And Irrational Common Names

    See Naked Ladies    

The common or vernacular names of plants are often strange and even amusing at times. The "pineapple" is not in any way related to either pines or apples, and "peppergrass" is not a pepper, nor is it related to the Grass Family (Poaceae). The logic behind names such as "bouncing bet," "ramping fumitory," "bastard toadflax," "lady-of-the-night," and "go-to-bed-at-noon" is not readily apparent. It is also rather disappointing to discover that "Kentucky bluegrass" was introduced from Europe and the "California pepper tree" is native to Peru. But in spite of the numerous irrational names for plants, there are many common names that are descriptive and meaningful; however, you may have to look very carefully to see the obvious derivation of the name.

In addition to one or more common names, plant species also have a scientific binomial consisting of a first name (genus) and a last name (specific epithet), sort of like the first (given name) and last name (surname) of people. Scientific names are commonly derived from Greek or Latin and are spelled in the Roman alphabet the same way throughout the world. Therefore, Pinus ponderosa refers to the same tree, regardless of the country or native language. Since plants may have more than one common name, and since common names may have different translations, scientific names are used in publications and scientific correspondence. Scientific names, however, are not always completely logical when you consider a yellow violet named Viola purpurea, and a one-leaved (or is it two-leaved?) plant named Unifolium bifolium. The wildflower Muilla is an anagram derived by spelling its onion relative (Allium) backwards. You can probably think of a popular laxative that is also an anagram. Although there is some disagreement among botanists, common names can be very useful, particularly when they describe a plant in a meaningful way that is easy to remember and pronounce. The following text box features a strange fungus (not a flowering plant) with a very unusual (but appropriate) scientific first and last name.

An Unusual Binomial For A Fungus

Stinkhorn Fungus (Phallus impudicus)

This is a fowl-smelling fungus that attracts flies to its spore-laden, slimy head, thus increasing the odds of its spores being dispersed to new habitats. The fruiting body can appear almost overnight, and may "scent" your entire backyard. This fungus begins as an egg-like body beneath the soil. An erect phallus-like stalk breaks through the "egg," forming a cuplike basal volva as the stalk rapidly elongates. The swollen "head" or cap is coated with a black, putrid, musilaginous mass of spore slime that attracts blow flies and flesh flies. Because of its remarkable resemblance to a penis, this species is appropriately named Phallus impudicus, which literally means impudent or shameless phallus.

See Flesh Fly On The "Head" Of Phallus Impudicus
See Another Photo Of The Bizarre Phallus Impudicus

There are numerous desert natives with very descriptive common names. The flowers of "dyeweed" (Psorothamnus emoryi) are covered with little orange glands that produce a saffron-yellow dye which readily rubs off and was used by Indians for art work. The thorns of "catclaw acacia" (Acacia greggii) are so effective that this shrub is sometimes called "wait-a-minute bush." "Desert fir" (Peucephyllum schottii) has dark, evergreen leaves that resemble needles of the cone-bearing fir tree (Abies), although they are not related. A wildflower called "tackstem" (Calycoseris parryi) looks like someone drove small-headed nails into its stem. The "tacks" are actually small glands. The name "sandpaper plant" (Petalonyx thurberi) is readily apparent when you rub the leaves of this little desert shrub. "Creosote bush" (Larrea tridentata) is named for its olfactory similarity to the pungent wood preservative used on fence posts and telephone poles. Cheese bush (Hymenoclea salsola), another common aromatic shrub, actually smells like cheese. "Cheese-weed" (Malva parviflora) produces wheel-shaped fruits composed of one-seeded sections. The sections fit together like a wheel of cheese.

One of the most common questions asked by my students on desert field trips is whether creosote comes from the creosote bush. The answer is an unequivocal no. The commercial source of creosote is derived from the distillation of coal tar. It is produced by high temperature carbonization of bituminous coal. Wood creosote is obtained from the distillation of wood tar from several woods of the eastern United States. Wood creosote is a mixture of phenolic compounds that are used medicinally as an antiseptic and expectorant. Under no circumstances should coal tar creosote be taken internally. Although creosote bush does not grow in the chaparral plant community, the dried leaves of this shrub are the source of "chaparral tea," a controversial herbal remedy with antitumor properties. The leaves contain a powerful antioxidant that apparently destroys tumor cells; however, there are reported cases of liver toxicity, including toxic hepatitis and jaundice.

Desert and mountain wildflowers are named after just about every conceivable thing, including pincushions, brushes, houses, musical instruments, jewelry and the anatomy of animals. Just a few examples are "pincushion flower" (Chaenactis fremontii), "Indian paintbrush" (Castilleja affinis), "Chinese houses" (Collinsia heterophylla), "scarlet bugler" (Penstemon centranthifolius), "golden eardrops" (Dicentra chrysantha), "steer's head" (Dicentra uniflora) "mule ears" (Wyethia mollis), "deer's ears" (Frasera parryi), "elephant heads" (Pedicularis groenlandica), "cat's ears" (Hypochoeris glabra), "ox tongue" (Picris echioides), "lamb's quarters" (Chenopodium album), "goosefoot" (Chenopodium californicum), "bird's beak" (Cordylanthus filifolius), and "stork's bill" (Erodium texanum).

Eminent botanist Gilbert Voss in a dense stand of golden eardrops (Dicentra chrysantha). Photograph taken on a recently burned slope of Tecate Peak in southern San Diego County (circa 1967).

Steer's head (Dicentra uniflora) on the Dana Plateau of the Sierra Nevada.

The names of many desert natives are derived from Spanish, and in some cases, are spelled the same way on both sides of the border. The vivid red flowers of "chuparosa" (Beloperone californica) are frequently visited by hummingbirds (chuparosas). The verb chupar means "to suck." What better name could have been given to the desert tree with pale green bark than "palo verde" (Cercidium floridum), meaning green stem? An attractive gray shrub with yellow daisy-like flowers is appropriately called "incienso" because the resin was burned as incense in early Spanish missions. It is perhaps more commonly known as "brittle bush" because of its easily broken branches. The name "calabazilla" or little gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima) aptly describes this strong-scented, trailing vine that is common along desert washes and roadsides in late summer and fall. It is also called Coyote Melon, presumably because coyotes eat the seeds and pulp when they are hungry. [The seeds commonly appear in coyote scat when the gourds are plentiful.] The common shrub of the high desert, "yerba santa" (Eriodictyon trichocalyx), had many medicinal uses by Indians and early settlers and literally means saintly or holy herb. The large "senita cactus" (Lophocereus schottii) of southern Arizona and Mexico is named after the word senita meaning "old one." The upper ribs of this cactus are covered with gray, whisker-like spines, suggesting senescence.

A "senita cactus" (Lophocereus schottii) south of the U.S. border in Sonora, Mexico. The gray, whisker-like spines on the upper stems suggest "old one" or senescence.

The less apparent common names are even more intriguing especially when you discover why the plant was given its unusual name. One of the strangest and most interesting wildflowers of the southwest mountains is called "ground cone" (Boschniakia strobilacea). The plant is seldom seen by the casual observer, perhaps because it usually pushes out of the soil near or under the branches of shrubs. The above-ground flower stalk is strikingly similar to a small pine cone, and with age looks even more like an old, weather-beaten cone. But you can be sure it is not a pine cone when you see small purplish flowers between the numerous overlapping scales. The fleshy flower stalk arises deep in the ground from a tuberous mass attached to the root of a nearby host shrub. Ground cone is a root parasite related to the strange broom-rapes which appear in desert riverbeds and in the fields of irate tomato farmers. Broom-rapes were named from their one-sided parasitic affair with certain leafless shrubs called "brooms." In fact, one of our desert brooms is called "turpentine broom" (Thamnosma montana), a strong-scented little shrub with purple flowers and gland-dotted fruits. It is one of the few native members of the Citrus Family (Rutaceae) found in the southwest.

These cone-like structures are the flower stalks of a seldom-seen wildflower called "ground cone" (Boschniakia strobilacea). The small flowers protruding from the purplish scales are proof that these are not pine cones.

Dune Primrose = Desert Birdcage = Desert Lantern

One of the loveliest wildflowers of sandy soils and sand dunes is "dune primrose" (Oenothera deltoides). It has very showy, large white flowers that turn pinkish with age. It often grows in profusion with beautiful pinkish-purple "sand verbena" (Abronia villosa), producing a spectacular wildflower display. Another common name for dune primrose is "desert lantern," and for years I was puzzled by the choice of this name. There is a logical reason for this name. Dune primrose has a very interesting growth form consisting of a central ascending flower stalk with radiating branches extending in all directions along the ground. At the end of the spring flowering season, the greenish branches eventually dry and curl upward toward the central axis. Woody seed capsules that split into four prongs now occupy the positions where the large flowers used to be. This entire dried structure is the source of the common name "desert lantern." Some naturalists use the name "desert bird cage" which is perhaps even more descriptive because of the outer upturned branches (like vertical bars) around the main central axis. These "lanterns" or "bird cages" are often over one foot tall, but because they are frequently partially buried by drifting sand, their complete form is not readily discernible.

A dried "dune primrose" (Oenothera deltoides) held upright by the taproot. The outer branches have curled up to form the peculiar "lantern" or "bird cage".

Another close relative of dune primrose with much smaller flowers in dense terminal spikes is called "desert bottle cleaner" (Camissonia boothii ssp. condensata). Each little white flower develops into a woody, four-pronged seed capsule. The dried flower stalks, with numerous, crowded, four-pronged capsules completely encircling it, greatly resemble a test tube or bottle cleaner, both in general appearance and size.

A genuine test tube cleaner (left) compared with three flower stalks of the infamous "desert bottle cleaner" (Camissonia boothii ssp. condensata).

There are many different species of wild buckwheats (Eriogonum) in the southwest, but one of the most unusual is "desert trumpet" (Eriogonum inflatum var. inflatum). As the specific epithet implies, the stems are conspicuously inflated or flared just below the point of branching, vaguely reminiscent of several wind musical instruments. If you look very carefully you may see a small hole near the top of the inflated area. This is the entrance to a miniature food storage room and incubator for minute wasps of the genus Onyerus. The female wasp packs the cavity with insect larvae and then lays her eggs upon them. However, some desert trumpets do not have the inflated stems, and these have been named variety deflatum.

Swollen stems of "desert trumpet" (Eriogonum inflatum var. inflatum).

Athough most wildflower books and floras list inflated and deflated varieties of desert trumpet, this may be incorrect according to A.M. Stone and C.T. Mason, Jr. (Desert Plants, 1975). Stone and Mason studied wild and greenhouse populations of both varieties, and discovered that stem inflation was caused by larval feeding of gall insects, including a lepidopteran (Pyralidae) and a beetle (Mordellidae). According to Stone and Mason, the swollen tissue is produced in response to a chemical or physical irritation by ravenous insect larvae imbedded in the plant's tissues. They concluded that "the taxonomic recognition of the varieties "inflatum" and "deflatum" is not based on a genetic characteristic, but on a monstrosity, and has no validity."

The Desert Trumpet Riddle Solved At Last

According to the world authority on the genus Eriogonum, Dr. James L. Reveal of the University of Maryland (personal communication, 1998), the swollen stem of E. inflatum var. inflatum is due to high concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the solid stem and seems to be related to gas regulation. Although some insects utilize the swollen stem as a larder, the inflation is NOT caused by the larval feeding of gall insects. In fact, during very dry years many populations of var. inflatum will have no or poorly inflated stems. In northeastern Utah and adjacent Colorado, another species E. fusiforme occurs in the tens of millions in a good year, and all have inflated stems even when they are young (and there is no evidence that the inflated stems are caused by insects). E. trichopes in the mud hills of the Borrego Badlands can also be added to this list of inflated stem wild buckwheats. Go to the following link and scroll down.

Unabridged note from revised Jepson Manual: Degree of stem inflation correlated positively with CO2 accumulation, and not correlated with insect activity (despite ongoing reports to the contrary).

Inflated Stem Eriogonum trichopes in Borrego Badlands
See Another Gall Controversy Involving The Fig Wasp

Two additional wildflowers of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae) with peculiar seed pods are "lyre pod" (Lyrocarpa coulteri) and "spectacle pod" (Dithyrea californica). Lyre pod is an interesting desert native of rocky outcrops and canyons, often found growing among clumps of other shrubs. It produces small seed pods with the general shape of a lyre, a small, stringed, harp-like instrument used by ancient Greeks to accompany singers and reciters. Curiously enough, a lyre-shaped marking occurs on the head of a seldom-seen snake that inhabits nearby rocky outcrops and hides during the day in deep crevices and under exfoliating granite slabs. The lyre snake is a rear-fanged snake with a venom that immobilizes small nocturnal lizards and rodents, and even bats when they are roosting. Unlike its deadly African relative, the boomslang, the lyre snake is not considered especially dangerous to people.

The small fruits (silicles) of "spectacle pod" (Dithyrea californica) resemble miniature eye glasses. This wildflower is common in sandy areas of the Colorado Desert.

Another member of the enormous Mustard Family (Brassicaceae) with unusual seed pods is "spectacle pod." This little wildflower has seed pods (called silicles) that resemble pairs of miniature eye glasses or spectacles. It commonly grows in sandy desert riverbeds and along roadsides of the Colorado Desert. Any discussion of unusual desert mustards would be incomplete without mentioning the striking "desert candle" (Caulanthus inflatus). This annual wildflower is named for its inflated, tapering stem which resembles a candle. Other desert species of Caulanthus, such as C. cooperi and C. hallii have main stems that are much more slender. The "candles" of C. inflatus occasionally appear in profusion along roadsides in the Mojave Desert and westward into California's San Joaquin Valley

The inflated flower stalks of "desert candle" (Caulanthus inflatus) appear on open flats and among shrubs in the Mojave Desert.

Rupturewort: Herniaria hirsuta

Herniaria (Herniaria hirsuta) is a small annual herb in the pink family (Caryophyllaceae). Although native to Europe, it is a occasionally naturalized in disturbed areas of California. Inconspicuous apetalous flowers are produced in the leaf axils. [Flowers on this plant were observed with 2 stamens and a short, 2-parted style.] The calyx and foliage are covered with stiff (hispid) hairs, hence, the specific epithet of hirsuta. The generic name is derived from the Latin word for rupture, and herbs of this genus were apparently used as a treatment for hernias. A cultivated evergreen species (H. glabra) is appropriately called "rupturewort" or green carpet. It is used in landscaping as a low, mat-forming ground cover around walkways and stepping stones.

Herniaria (Herniaria hirsuta) showing stem, flowers and leaves. [Flowers on this plant were observed with 2 stamens and a short, 2-parted style.] The pubescence appears to be predominantly hirsute with stiff, straight hairs. Hairs on the stem are shorter and more dense. How members of this genus could benefit one suffering from a hernia is questionable. It would certainly be uncomfortable if worn with a truss. According to Z. Sokar, C.A. Gadhi, A. Benharref and M. Jana (Journal of Ethnobotany Vol. 88 Oct. 2003 pp. 149-153), Herniaria cinerea (syn. H. hirsuta ssp. cinerea) was used traditionally to cure kidney stones.

The Jepson Manual of California Plants (1993) lists 2 subspecies of Herniaria hirsuta, ssp. cinerea and ssp. hirsuta. The above plants appear to have characteristics intermediate between the two subspecies. The uniformly hirsute (hispid) pubescence is typical of ssp. hirsuta; however, the presence of only 2-3 stamens is characteristic of ssp. cinerea (ssp. hirsuta typically has 5 stamens). A California Flora by P.A. Munz (1959), A Flora of Southern California by P.A. Munz (1974) and Illustrated Flora of the Pacific States Vol. 2 by L. Abrams(1964) list it as H. cinerea. Weeds of California (1941) by W.W. Robbins, M.K.Bellue and W.S. Ball list it as H. cinerea, but describe it as having 2-5 stamens! Adding to the confusion, the Jepson Manual describes the sepals of ssp. cinerea as more or less (±) unequal, while describing the sepals of ssp. hirsuta as more or less (±) equal. Is less unequal similar to less equal, or is more unequal similar to less equal?

A Plant Named After Male Genetalia: Ranuculus testiculatus

This species of Ranunculus is naturalized in some areas of southern California. The unusual specific epithet is dervived from its pistil which is "scrotiform" at the base with twin protuberances that resemble testicles in a scrotum. Its unofficial, crude vernacular name is "ballswort." It is not related to nutgrass, nutsedge or nutrush.


It would takes volumes to discuss all the descriptive, bizarre, humorous, logical and illogical names of wildflowers. In fact, there are thousands of interesting names in the deserts of the southwestern United States alone. A number of wildflower books are available, some of which include derivations of the common names. One of the best is the classic Desert Wildflowers by Edmund C. Jaeger (Stanford University Press, 1941). You can often learn interesting details about a wildflower's growth habit, flower, fruit or early uses just from its common name. Also catchy names are easier to relate to and communicate about, and easier to remember. It has been estimated that even the best botanists can only recall 5,000 plant names from memory, so don't feel too badly if you can't remember them all.

Another Unusual Plant Name

Naked Ladies

(Amaryllis belladonna)

These beautiful flowers grow out of bare, parched ground during September in San Diego County. They arise from deep-seated bulbs, long after the leaves from the previous spring have withered away. Scroll down to the next paragraph to read about this curious name for a plant.

A South African bulb plant that has become a common garden escape in California is called "naked lady" or "naked ladies" (Amaryllis belladonna). During late summer and early autumn, long after the strap-shaped leaves have withered away, clusters of beautiful, fragrant, pink blossoms develop on bare stalks (scapes) that grow out of the ground from deep-seated, long-lived bulbs. This is the origin of the common name, in reference to the flower stalks that appear on bare stems without leaves. This plant is also called belladonna lily, although it is actually a member of the amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae). Another species of Amaryllis (A. paradisicola) has been described from South Africa. True lilies belong to the genus Lilium of the lily family (Liliaceae), and most cultivated members of the amaryllis family with the common name of "amaryllis" actually belong to a different genus, such as Hippeastrum.

The bulbs of this species and related members of the amaryllis family (Hippeastrum, Narcissus, Clivia, Crinum, Haemanthus and Hymenocallis) are toxic if ingested because of the isoquinoline alkaloid lycorine and some related alkaloids. They are all derived from a precursor compound norbelladine, which is formed from the aromatic amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine. The alkaloid belladonnine plus some potent tropane alkaloids (atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine) are found in the unrelated Atropa beladonna, a poisonous member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Although human poisoning from naked lady bulbs is uncommon, it would be very wise to never mistake them for onion bulbs (Allium), another member of this fascinating plant family. [Note: Some botanists consider Allium to be in its own family, the Alliaceae, while others now consider all of these closely related genera to be part of the vast Liliaceae.] Naked ladies will grow in almost any soil with no irrigation at all. A neglected plot of land may appear devoid of any plant life, and then after a long, hot summer, a mass of flower stalks suddenly appear from the barren, parched ground.

Sprouting bulbs of naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna) often appear in parched, dry soil months before the beautiful pink flowers appear.

The bulbs of Hippeastrum (often called "Amaryllis") coated in wax are sold as holiday gifts. They are closely related to the genus Amaryllis and belong to the same family Amaryllidaceae. Without any watering or care they will sprout into beautiful flowers. I have never tried to remove the wax and plant them in soil, but apparently this is a way to keep your plant alive for future years.

Happy sprouting bulb in potting soil after wax coating removed (Feb. 2023).

Medical Plant Alkaloids & Terpenes
See Article About Plant Alkaloids

A shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana) in full bloom. Native to Mexico, this showy evergreen shrub belongs to the acanthus family (Acanthaceae). Formerly placed in the genus Beloperone, this interesting shrub is closely related to chuparosa (Justicia californica) of the Colorado Desert. Perhaps the next image will show its slight resemblance to a shrimp.

Flower-bearing spike of the shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana). Formerly placed in the genus Beloperone, this interesting shrub is closely related to chuparosa (Justicia californica) of the Colorado Desert. The tubular, white flowers spotted with purple are enclosed in showy, overlapping bracts.

Owl's clover (Castilleja densiflora ssp. gracilis), formerly placed in the genus Orthocarpus. The individual flower superficially resembles an owl. White-flowered individuals can be found within large populations in coastal San Diego County.

Glistening, gland-tipped hairs (trichomes) on the stem of white-flowered
tackstem (Calycoseris wrightii) resemble minute translucent tacks.

The black, gland-tipped hairs (trichomes) on the stem of yellow-flowered tackstem Calycoseris parryi.

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