Family resemblance

Family resemblance


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Family Resemblance  

Sometimes it is easy to see the family resemblance among species of the same genus. Take the genus Viola. The similarities between pansies, violets, and johnny-jump-ups are easy to see. For example, they have similar flowers with five petals, with the lower petal the largest and the other four forming two dissimilar pairs.

On the other extreme, the genus Euphorbia contains species with vastly different forms and habitats. This genus contains the familiar poinsettia, a non-hardy shrub native to Mexico, as well as the crown-of-thorns, a native of Madagascar with needle-like spines commonly grown as a houseplant. Other genus members include snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata), a vigorous bushy annual plant native to the prairies from Minnesota to Colorado, as well as a number of garden spurges such as gopher spurge (Euphorbia lathyrus). Remarkably, there are even tree euphorbias; Euphorbia canariensis, native to the Canary Islands, has a cactus-like appearance and grows to a height of 40 feet.

How can such diverse plants be so closely related?

Classification of higher plants is primarily based on reproductive structures, and in this respect, all euphorbias are similar. We won’t go into the specifics here, but suffice it to say that the flowers of your holiday poinsettia (the yellow-green structures in the center of the brightly-colored bracts) have a structure that is shared by all euphorbias.

Understanding the details of the complex systems used to classify plants—and all living things—isn’t necessary, but gardeners do benefit from having some familiarity with a plant’s place in the system of classification. Members of a genus often share common characteristics, such as soil and light preferences. For example, willows (genus Salix) generally prefer moist soils. Knowing this, you might begin your search for a streambank stabilizer by looking at the various Salix species. (Of course the euphorbias illustrate that this resemblance among species within a genus isn’t absolute!)

And, conversely, knowing a plant’s botanical name can sometimes help you determine its particular requirements. Suppose you receive a potted plant as a gift, and all the label gives is its name, Cornus officinalis.You’re wondering what type of plant it is, and what conditions it needs.You check your reference books, and see that it’s a dogwood, but can’t find that particular species. However, in the process you notice that all the other Cornus species mentioned are large shrubs or small trees that prefer dappled shade and moist, acidic soils. So, you make a guess that these things also apply to your new plant, and in this case you would be right. (Though it would be a good idea to call a local nursery to doublecheck this.)

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E Pluribus Unum? You may have noticed that at the end of the second paragraph the term "euphorbias" was neither capitalized nor italicized. To be technically correct, when a Latin name is pluralized, it should be set in plain type and not capitalized. You could substitute the phrase "members of the genus Euphorbia" in place of the word "euphorbias."


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