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Figwort Family Breaks Up: Read All About It



No longer a Figwort

Like many families today, the Figworts have split up.  Even now, they are moving on to new families, acquiring new names.

It’s sad, but modern life is full of such scenes. What drove them apart? Taxonomy.

What does this mean to me? you may be wondering. Who gives a fig?

Well, if you’re a gardener, you’re probably living with a Figwort right now. Got any foxgloves? Snapdragons? Toadflax? Or if you don’t have those, you may have nemesia, penstemon, angelonia, or any of about 190 other genera from the family (in its heyday).

If you like to walk in the larger garden nature combines with humans to make, you’ll find more (former) Figworts: mimulus, Indian paintbrush, collinsia. Wetter areas than mine may harbor the wild Figworts foxglove (D. purpurea) and toadflax (Linaria vulgaris).

What does it mean to a gardener or just plain plant-fancier to know a plant family? In my own case, I’ve used the old, extended Figwort family as a sign of plants that are likely to do well, or at least OK, in semi-shade. Since semi-shade is mostly what I’ve got, this is important news.

Figworts, I’ve discovered – at least the clan of ancient days – seem to be a little less tasty to deer than other flowering plants. You notice I didn’t say Figworts are deer-proof (that would be asking for it). No plant is deer-proof. Figworts (or Scrophulariaceae in the old-school sense) might qualify as fairly deer-resistant, though.

I can still use these old designations for practical purposes, but here, as so often, the dread Lumpers and Splitters have come into the garden, wreaking as much havoc as deer. DNA sequencing shows that the Figworts must be in five separate groups, some of them entirely new groups made for the occasion, like children of a second marriage assigned a name they’ve never known. Even these five groups leave the mimulus on the outskirts : mimulus is still unclassified. And to make the splitup even more fraught, Lumpers and Splitters have been tussling over the genus Mimulus for years. Some say that the shrubby ones should be called Diplacus, and the herby ones Mimulus. (For more about this epic struggle, check out this post.)

When botanists create new orders (so to speak), gardeners (conservatives of the botanical world) often stubbornly hold on to the old ones. The gardeners have a point: there were reasons why these plants were bound together under one roof. They have similarities that help us to identify them, know some of their properties, and have a good idea where they like to grow.

The botanists have a point, too. If these plants are different down to their DNA, it makes sense to me that there would be distinctions in their personalities and properties – how could there not be?

And what might that mean to gardeners?

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Jan (ThanksFor2Day) September 28, 2009, 7:53 am

    This is very interesting, Pomona. I didn’t realize these kinds of things were taking place–until recently, when I posted about my Bugbane (Cimicifuga ramosa). Monica, the GardenFairy brought it to my attention that it’s genus has changed to Actaea. I didn’t understand why that would happen…but with the ability to ID DNA, it makes more sense to me now!

  • lostlandscape(James) October 2, 2009, 8:08 pm

    With the DNA revolution going on its pretty amazing all the new alliances that are being drawn among plants, along with all the family breakups that are being generated. It’s all a fascinating field, looking at relationships that might not be obvious to the merely observant gardener. It IS frustrating when your settled worldview has to change so much, however. As the latest Jepson California flora is being prepared, there are all sorts of tales of the reclassification that’s beginning to take place…

  • Pomona Belvedere October 4, 2009, 2:06 pm

    Yes, I have a friend who’s a botanist for the Forest Service and even she has to look a lot of things up now, everything’s changing so fast. I’m guessing one of the reasons the Jepson’s taking so long is that they keep revising and revising.

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