Telling Fat from Slim False Solomon's Seal - and a bit of a botany lesson

As I walk the dirt road where I enjoy wildflowers and (con permiso) collect seeds, I encounter Maianthemum racemosum, false fat solomon's seal, and Maianthemum stellata, slim false solomon's seal. They are also known respectively as feathery false lily of the valley and starry false lily of the valley. But I haven't been sure which is which.

(Why the name false solomon's seal, you might ask -- I certainly did: the foliage is similar to the plant Solomon's Seal, polygonatum biflorum. And how did that plant get its name? Apparently the seal of Solomon is, sort of, visible on the rootstock, in the circular scars left by the stem after it dies back.)

I used to think that the difference was how fat the leaves are, but then I saw some fat leaved plants and some slim leaved plants, with similar flowers and fruits. So.... Hm... Time to get clear on this.

Google led me to a page called Vascular Plants of the Gila Wilderness - which taught me that the flower cluster - or inflorescence to be all botanical about it - is the telling part:

Maianthemum stellata - inflorescence is a raceme. A raceme looks kinda like a display of lolly-pops with their ends stuck in a central pole.

Maianthemum stellata - starry false lily of the valley (Source: Wildflower West - photo I have is blurry)
Maianthemum racemosum - inflorescence is a panicle. No, not a little panic -- a panicle is like - um - instead of lolly-pops coming off the central pole, smaller poles come off the central pole, each with its own display of lolly-pops.

Maianthemum racemosum - feathery false lily of the valley. It does look a lot more feathery!
It seems so clear to me now! How could I ever have not known this! -- Isn't that always the way with these things? Once we get the facts straight it's like we just perceive things directly -- yah, that's a junco and that's a chestnut backed chickadee, and that song is the spotted towhee. No information processing involved -- I find this quite amazing!

Knowing the botanical terms is helpful when you want to describe something without resorting to lolly-pops. I just Googled inflorescence types examples and looked at the images - worth many thousands of my words! Here is a basic one:

 Source: Ohio State University Plant Facts Inflorescence page.

BTW, I planted some seeds of M. racemosum last fall, and I wrote about their interesting double-dormancy life cycle in this post. I'm not hopeful of success as yet. So I've collected seeds again, and this time I'm going to try and plant them directly in the ground - protected by in a mesh basket with a cage over - where I think they could grow naturally -- but don't -- on my property. We'll see!


Jason said…
Never thought of these two species as fat and slim. Does that mean if M. racemosa went on a diet it would become M. stellata?
Country Mouse said…
haha - well, it's the common name I learned them with, but maybe it's not so common? -- be nice if they had their very own common name and not a derivative of some other plant's common name. Still there's history there - plants that the western cataloguers encountered in recent history.