Starry, Starry Plants

by Nancy Rose
January 5, 2018

Starry, Starry Plants

Plants on planet Earth have no literal resemblance to the distant fiery gas balls we call stars, but certain plant parts can resemble the multi-pointed decorative shapes that humans have used for centuries to depict stars. Those starry qualities also show up in plant names such as star magnolia (Magnolia stellata; stella is the Latin root for star), whose lovely white flowers put on a lovely spring show, even if the star

star magnolia flower

Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) bears lovely white flowers in early spring (the Arboretum-introduced cultivar ‘Centennial’, accession 170-2002-A, is seen here). Photo by Robert Mayer.

resemblance is a bit iffy. Other plants with star-related flowers and names include the North American wildflower, starry campion (Silene stellata), and common chickweed (Stellaria media), a non-native but widely naturalized weedy annual that, even under its more charming alternate common name of starwort, will get yanked out of my garden.

Stars also show up in the name of a type of minute hair found on certain plants’ leaves or other parts. Stellate trichomes are multi-branched, star-shaped hairs; it often requires some level of magnification to see them clearly but they can be useful in plant identification. The specific epithet for post oak (Quercus stellata), an American species in the white oak group, refers to the scattered stellate hairs found on its leaves.

stellate trichomes on leaf

Densely packed stellate trichomes on a prairie tea (Croton monanthogynus) leaf, as seen under a dissecting microscope. Photo by Jim Conrad.

A more obscure but very interesting stellar connection is found in plants that have the specific epithet septentrionalis. “Septentrional” means “northern” and refers to the seven (sept-) stars in the Big Dipper (or possibly the Little Dipper), readily visible from the Northern Hemisphere. English speakers are more likely to use the word “boreal” for northern, but septentrional is used in Latin-based languages such as French and Spanish. Species examples include northern woodland violet (Viola septentrionalis) and Androsace septentrionalis, a small herbaceous plant with several common names including the delightful “northern fairy candelabra.”

flowers of northern fairy candelabra

The branched inflorescences holding starry white flowers give Androsace septentrionalis its charming common name, northern fairy candelabra. Photo by Al Schneider, USDA PLANTS database.

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