Thursday, March 27, 2014

Flowering ferns and other mythical greens

The Philadelphia Flower Show is a paradise for winter-weary gardeners.  It can also be great fodder for botanical accuracy blog posts, but I have to say that this year's show was a lot better than usual. It was a delight to be there in this seemingly perpetual winter.  As for botanical inaccuracies, there was only one that stared you in the face, label and all.
"Flowering Ferns", label seen at Philadelphia Flower Show.
Photo ©
This label is from a Dutch company's booth where they were briskly selling "Flowering ferns".  How can that be? Isn't that like unicorns or flying horses? A combination of features that has never evolved, in horses, or in ferns.

So what is wrong with flowering ferns, apart from the fact that they don't exist?  On the tree of life of plants, ferns (and horsetails) are located above the mosses and liverworts at the base, and below the conifers (spruces, pines, etc.) and flowering plants.  Conifers and flowering plans have seeds, but ferns, lycopods, and mosses have spores spread from sporangia, never seeds. Flowers and fruits only occur in angiosperms (flowering plants), a group that evolved a lot later than ferns. So what is in this bag for sale in this booth? A fern or a flowering plant?

"Flowering Ferns" packet, seen at Philadelphia Flower Show.
Photo ©
It turns out to be a flowering plant with fern-like leaves. The species is Incarvillea delavayi. It is a member of the family of Bignoniaceae (bignons), together with trumpet creeper (Campsis), jacaranda (Jacaranda), and African tulip tree (Spathodea).  Common names for this species are hardy gloxinia, incarvillea, garden gloxinia, and Delavays trumpet flower.  To add the inaccurate name 'flowering ferns', just add confusion.