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Thursday, May 19, 2005

Small aster/composite

Composite small sunflower

This flower is a member of the Aster, or composite, family, a family of flowering plants with many species. Most of this family are weeds (see also a blog post on spiritual weeds). The reason that these are sometimes called composites is that what seems to be a single flower is a composite of many. The many flowers are often of two types, ray and disc flowers. Ray flowers are larger and showier, and are around the outside of the "flower." You can see a ring of ray flowers in the picture above. If you are familiar with sunflowers, you should be able to visualize what ray flowers look like. The disc flowers are in the center. They make sunflower seeds. (Some composites have only ray flowers, or only disc flowers.)

The particular plant in the photo is currently very common in upstate South Carolina, especially along roadsides, and in yards that haven't been mowed for several days.

I'm too lazy to do a lot of research to identify this plant. The closest I can come to a common name for it is colts-foot, or colts foot or, possibly, catsear. Don't ask me why it (may) have either one of those names. The plant, nor its flower, seem to resemble a colt's foot, or a cat's ear. Perhaps it did to someone.

Scientific names are important, because they identify plants so that there is (usually-sometimes there is controversy between scientists on how to classify something) no ambiguity over the identification. However, common names are important, too.

During my first year of teaching in South Carolina, when I, no doubt, had some arrogance, due to my recent Ph. D., and also some arrogance due to my midwestern origin, I rebuked a student for calling an animal a "toad-frog." I had never heard that term. I have come to realize that, if he knew what he meant by a toad-frog, and his audience did, too, he was communicating as well as if he had called it Rana pipiens, or, as I would have, simply a frog. Common names are fine for communicating within your own culture. They can cause problems when trying to communicate between cultures. That's one reason why we know so little about the exact identification of living things in the Bible.


Seyms said...

Martin, I have been enjoying your blog. Thanks for posting. I must agree that the positive identification of the coltsfoot-type "weeds" is rather tricky. They grow a lot on the verges round here in the North of England. I have been trying to find some good examples of the plant called coltsfoot which is also known as "Rabbit Tobacco" because it is has traditionally been smoked by country people and oddly is known to help cattarhal problems - even smoked. I buy the dried herb to drink as a tea when I have a bad cough. It does seem to work. The species we get a lot of round here has a shallow but knotty root system that seems to be loved by grubs and maggots. I think the shape of the plant funnels water into the base of the stems and means it is always extra moist and rotty around the foot of the plant.

I am cultivating the habit of not calling weeds "weeds" - which is derogatory - but "volunteers". It credits these plants for their pluckiness in often being the first to colonise a new area rather than damning them for the fact the victorian haughyculturalists didn't like them in their lawns and borders. Volunteers are wonderful plants and many have value both as medicine and food as well as being quite pretty in their own way; like this one.

Keep up the good blogging :-)

Andy N. said...

Greetings! I got here via a google search on "Narnia Puzzle Donkey", (which I linked, and hope you don't mind), then thought I'd take a look around.

Coltsfoot as I know it near Lake Erie, is a plant of 'waste places' such as raliroad right of ways and roadsides. It appears as a compound flower resembling a dandilion in color and size on a varigated stem of 4-10 or so inches high, usually two or three weeks before dandilion bloom. The leaves come out after the flowers head out, resembling in size and shape of a colts foot. The leaves have been historically used medicinally for fever, if I recall correctly. I have a good healthy patch in my barely mowed yard, which has gone to seed, but it now shows leaves. If I had a digital camera, I'd send a picture. :)