Jun 19 2014
On the day we saw the upland sandpipers Carole Winslow showed me a “Life Flower”(*) growing by the road.
The delicate flowers of Bowman’s Root (Gillenia trifoliata) have five petals, but they’re arranged irregularly as you can see in Tom Potterfield’s photo above. When the flower fades each petal falls alone leaving three and four-petaled flowers to confuse us amateur botanists.
I took a (poor) photo of the profuse flowers and drooping stems. They look as if the rain beat them down but this perennial just won’t stand upright.
Gillenia trifoliata has two scientific names because there was a big disagreement about its first one. Conrad Moench named it Gillenia in honor of German botanist Arnoldus Gillenius, but another of Gillenius’ fans later named a completely different plant Gillena in his honor. Professor Britton decided that the single letter “i” was not enough to distinguish the two names so he renamed Bowman’s Root Porteranthus trifoliatus in honor of his friend, Thomas C. Porter.
Which name is right? In scientific naming there’s a rule that the first name takes precedence unless, of course, the organism is reclassed. As we have seen with warblers, the Dendroica genus name completely disappeared when American Redstarts, Setophaga ruticilla, were reclassed into the Dendroica genus. Because Setophaga is an older name the American Ornithologists’ Union declared that Setophaga replaced Dendroica. (Don’t get me going on how much I hate this!) Apparently botanists made no such pronouncement on Gillenia so both names continue.
Bowman’s Root has another common name, Indian Physic, because Native Americans used the powdered root for an emetic (bleah!) and other medicinal uses.
Four names are a heavy load for these ethereal flowers. I like to call them Bowman’s Root.
(Top photo taken at Longwood Gardens by Tom Potterfield. Click on the image to see the original. Bottom photo by Kate St.John)
(*) Life Flower: I’m borrowing a term from birding to describe the first time I’ve ever seen this species.