A rose is a rose - except in a field guide

I share with millions of others a heated interest in flowers. I don't go so far as to hold conversations with my geraniums, but I do wander my domesticated flower beds and the nearby woodlands to observe, touch, and sniff the blossoms that cross my path.

When I think of the broad appeal that flowers hold - uniting ages, professions, and economic classes - I am perplexed by the degree to which field guides and other descriptive "layman's" volumes exclude the reader rather than assist him or her to identify and appreciate a previously unknown bloom.

I have a shelf full of books on flowers, and I'll be darned if any of them are written in language I can understand.

The guides are laced with terms like "bracts," "drupe," "pappus," "ocrea," and "involucre." I admit that there is a certain poetry about these words (although I personally hope never to see the word "drupe" in verse). But when one has stumbled upon a daisylike flower in spring and wants to identify its species as quickly as possible, the guidebooks offer little help. One book begins with the invitation, "Note the hypanthium...." The hypanthium! Fortunately, the book has a glossary, which defines the hypanthium thus: "Sepals, petals, and stamens grow from the hypanthium."

But what is a sepal? I return to the glossary. Sepal: "A basic unit of the calyx." I riffle the pages again. Calyx: "Collective term for the sepals." Mama mia! How did Abbott and Costello miss this one?

If one finds wildflower guides indecipherable, it is unwise even to consider a peek into a book on herbs. Where the language of flowers is daunting, that of herbs is downright cryptic, as opaque as the lingo of the Navajo code talkers of World War II.

Consider this entry for meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria): "Its small, yellowish-white flowers grow in panicled cymes from June to August." Or galangal (Alpinia galanga): "Procumbent stems bear linear-lanceolate leaves as well as white flowers growing in racemes." (i.e., Who's on first? I don't know. Third base!)

I don't mean to spite the field of botany its terminology. It's just that I believe it should be poured through a filter when headed for the popular guidebooks.

Instead of pointing out that masterwort has "large umbels," why not simply say, "large, flat-topped flowers"? And what lesson is being imparted in describing pokeweed flowers as growing in "peduncled racemes" when one can just as easily state that it has "long, stalked flower clusters"? The jargon only serves to make one cynical, bringing me to harbor the suspicion that the authors of the confusion are trying to make a point, to wit: "You, the reader, think this wildflower stuff is fun. But believe us, it's hard work. Here, we'll prove it to you: 'The papilionaceous racemes are pinnatifid and procumbent.' "

There is, however, a refuge from the assault of the technical vernacular. When a written description is too much to bear, I resort to looking at the pictures (the way I did when I was 7 and needed periodic reprieves from the challenges of the text).

Of course, this requires that the photos be of good quality, and that the flower is in the exact stage of development as the one I happen to be bending over. Sometimes the species are so similar in appearance that even photos don't help. Such was the case several years back, when I was trying to distinguish between two kinds of wild violet. The descriptions (written in Old High Phoenician, I think) were appended with, "SEE PHOTO, PAGE 101."

But the photos of the two plants looked identical. The author must have sensed this as well, for beneath the photographs was the caveat, "FOR DISTINGUISHING FEATURES, SEE WRITTEN DESCRIPTION." (Third base!)

In all fairness, technical lingo does sometimes come in handy, even for the beginner.

I recall the time I was walking a meadow in a state park here in Maine, examining the wildflowers. A ranger came along in his truck and called out to me, demanding to know what I was doing. From his very young age and the tone of his voice, I surmised that he wanted to exert his authority in some concrete way, even if he wasn't sure if I was violating any rules.

Not wanting to cause any trouble, but equally committed to the meadow, I answered him in polite, measured tones: "I'm tallying the hypanthia in the hope of discerning a correlation between sepal number and the orientation of the calyx."

The ranger gazed off into the distance for a moment before commenting, "Well, OK, then."

And off he drove.

I realized that he had no idea what I was talking about. But then again, neither did I.

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