truth in common names

This is mildly boring. I can’t help it. I had to make an emergency trip to Harlequin’s this morning because I was at a loss as to what to do, and usually buying a bunch of plants gives me something to do. Yes, I know there’s weeding to be done in the garden; the weeds will still be there tomorrow and even next week.

I picked up a few pots of Melampodium leucanthum, the “black foot daisy”, and now I have a couple of unbelievably fascinating things to relate. For one thing, it isn’t the same species as M. cinereum like some people say. For another, it is not named because its stems and roots are black.

Except for the pot, find the black here.


Find the black roots here.


I looked up the treatment of Melampodium in Flora of North America online and found a reference to a revision of the genus done by T. F. Stuessy in Rhodora in 1972, and looked that up, too. Quite a few journals are available online which is a wonderful resource, even if the information gleaned from them, which you plan to impart to your loyal readers, is in itself fairly uninteresting. It’s named the black foot daisy because apparently Asa Gray himself thought the name derived from the Greek melampodion, black foot.

In fact, Linnaeus named it for the mythological Melampus, “medicus graecus“.

I looked up Melampus. It turns out that he was the cousin of Bellerophon (not really, of course), and he talked to the animals, or at least listened to them; a kind of ancient Greek Doctor Doolittle. He introduced the worship of Dionysus to Greece, was also said to be the world’s first medical doctor, and a soothsayer who wrote a treatise on how to tell the future by the way people twitched.

It’s at this point that someone may wonder what all of this has to do with a plant name. Linnaeus, as we can probably tell from his dates, 1707-1778, is dead, so we can hardly ask him, and Melampus, well, I bet he didn’t have a clue.

This is where the story comes to a screeching halt. Melampodium is named for a mythological character named Melampus. For some reason.

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4 Responses to truth in common names

  1. Pam says:

    I found a reference in a HortScience paper that the “unusual” common name comes from “the foot-shaped bract that surrounds the seed and turns black at maturity”. (Diggs et al 1999).

    • paridevita says:

      If they had looked at the 1972 treatment, they would have seen that the common name is derived from a misunderstanding, and isn’t a description of anything about the plant. The common name should be “Melampus daisy”…….
      This stuff dies hard. People are still trying to find reasons why aquilegias look like eagles, even though the name has nothing to do with eagles; aquilex (plural aquileges), water-bearer, referring to the nectar-rich spurs.

  2. acantholimon says:

    I posted a long lyrical response to your comment on MY blog–which you should check…

    Germany this time of year is unbelievably beautiful. You should be here with us!

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