Everlasting or Seven Years Little

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Common names are a funny thing. Depending on the region, the use, and the culture, one plant can take on many names. In other situations, many different plants can take on a single name. Though it isn't always obvious to those unfamiliar with them, the use of scientific names alleviates these issues by standardizing the naming of things so that anyone, regardless of where they are, knows what they are referring to. That being said, sometimes common names can be entertaining.

Take for instance, plants in the genus Syncarpha. These stunning members of the family Asteraceae are endemic to the fynbos region of the Eastern and Western Cape of South Africa. In appearance they are impossible to miss. In growth habit they have been described as "woody shrublets," forming dense clusters of woody stems covered in a coat of woolly hairs. Sitting atop their meter-high stems are the flower heads.

Each flower head consists of rings of colorful paper-like bracts surrounding a dense cluster of disk flowers. The flowering period of the various species can last for weeks and spans from October, well into January. Numerous beetles can be observed visiting the flowers and often times mating as they feed on pollen. Some of the beetles can be hard to spot as they camouflage quite well atop the central disk. Some authors feel that such beetles are the main pollinators for many species within this genus.

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Their mesmerizing floral displays are where their English common name of "everlasting" comes from. Due to the fact that they maintain their shape and color for a long time after being cut and dried, various Syncarpha species have been used quite a bit in the cut flower industry. A name that suggests everlasting longevity stands in stark contrast to their other common name. 

These plants are referred to as "sewejaartjie" in Afrikaans, which roughly translates to "seven years little." Why would these plants be referred to as everlasting by some and relatively ephemeral by others? It turns out, sewejaartjie is a name that has more to do with their ecology than it does their use in the floral industry.

As a whole, the 29 described species of Syncarpha are considered fire ephemerals. The fynbos is known for its fire regime and the plants that call this region home have evolved in response to this fact. Syncarpha are no exception. They flower regularly and produce copious amounts of seed but rarely live for more than 7 years after germination. Also, they do not compete well with any vegetation that is capable of shading them out.

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Instead, Syncarpha invest heavily in seed banking. Seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years until fires clear the landscape of competing vegetation and release valuable nutrients into the soil. Only then will the seeds germinate. As such, the mature plants don't bother trying to survive intense ground fires. They burn up along with their neighbors, leaving plenty of seed to usher in the next generation.

Research has shown that its not the heat so much as the smoke that breaks seed dormancy in these plants. In fact, numerous experiments using liquid smoke have demonstrated that the seeds are likely triggered by some bio-active chemical within the smoke itself.

So, there you have it. Roughly 29 plants with two common names, each referring back to an interesting aspect of the biology of these plants. Despite their familiarity and relative ease of committing to memory, the common names of various species only get us so far. That's not to say we should abolish the use of common names altogether. Learning about any plant should be an all encompassing endeavor provided you know which plant you are referring to.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

 

Understanding the Cocklebur

Spend enough time in disturbed areas and you will certainly cross paths with a cocklebur (Xanthium strumarium). As anyone with a dog can tell you, this plant has no problems getting around. It is such a common occurrence in my life that I honestly never stopped long enough to think about its place on the taxonomic tree. I always assumed it was a cousin of the amaranths. You can imagine my surprise then when I recently learned that this hardy species is actually a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). 

Cocklebur doesn't seem to fit with most of its composite relatives. For starters, its flowers are not all clustered together into a single flower head. Instead, male and female flowers are borne separately on the same plant. Male flower clusters are produced at the top of the flowering stem. Being wind pollinated, they quickly dump mass quantities of pollen into the air and wither away. The female flowers are clustered lower on the stem and consist of two pistillate florets situated atop a cluster of spiny bracts. 

After fertilization, these bracts swell to form the burs that so many of us have had to dig out of the fur of our loved ones. Inside that bur resides the seeds. Cocklebur is a bit strange in the seed department as well. Instead of producing multiple seeds complete with hairy parachutes, the cocklebur produces two relatively large seeds within each bur. There is a "top" seed, which sits along the curved, convex side of the bur, and a "bottom" seed that sits along the inner flat surface of the bur. Studies performed over a century ago demonstrated that these two seeds are quite important in maintaining cocklebur on the landscape. 

You see, cocklebur is an annual. It only has one season to germinate, grow, flower, and produce the next generation. We often think of annual plants as being hardy but in reality, they are often a bit picky about when and where they will grow. For that reason, seed banking is super important. Not every year will produce favorable growing conditions so dormant seeds lying in the soil act as an insurance policy. 

Whereas the bottom seed germinates within a year and maintains the plants presence when times are good, the top seed appears to have a much longer dormancy period. These long-lived seeds can sit in the soil for decades before they decide to germinate. Before humans, when disturbance regimes were a lot less hectic, this strategy likely assured that cocklebur would manage to stick around in any given area for the long term. Whereas fast germinating seeds might have been killed off, the seeds within the seed bank could pop up whenever favorable conditions finally presented themselves. 

Today cocklebur seems to be over-insured. It is a common weed anywhere soil disturbance produces bare soils with poor drainage. The plant seems equally at home growing along scoured stream banks as it does roadsides and farm fields. It is an incredibly plastic species, tuning its growth habit to best fit whatever conditions come its way. As a result, numerous subspecies, varieties, and types have been described over the years but most are not recognized in any serious fashion. 

Sadly, cocklebur can become the villain as its burs get hopelessly tangled in hair and fur. Also, every part of the plant is extremely toxic to mammals. This plant has caused many a death in both livestock and humans. It is an ironic situation to consider that we are so good at creating the exact kind of conditions needed for this species to thrive. Love it or hate it, it is a plant worth some respect. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] 

Further Reading: [1] [2]