What's Its Name?

Yesterday, I was wandering in the woods around my house when I discovered a patch of these flowers. I wondered if butterflies liked them, and if so, which butterflies. After I had come inside, I started trying to find out, but I couldn’t find a reference or even a picture of that flower anywhere. I had always believed they were called monk’s cap, but when I looked that up, I found blue flowers – obviously not the right one.

I have a field book, which supposedly lists all the wildflowers in North America by color, but this one wasn’t there. I tried looking in Lady Byrd Johnson’s Library of wildflowers, but since I didn’t know its name, I couldn’t find it. I Googled “red” Texas wildflowers, but it wasn’t there. How was I going to find it?

I finally sent a picture to a friend of mine who is a botanist. She lives in Wyoming and is unfamiliar with that flower, but because of its shape and the way the whole plant grows, she suggested I try searching in the Mallow Family of plants.  It worked – I found it. This was a new concept for me; identifying plants by their shape and family. I was intrigued, so I started researching (you know how I love it).

Every living organism is categorized in the Taxonomic Classification system. It’s a hierarchical system that allows a standardized method for classifying organisms to the species level. You may have learned about this in school, but if you’re like me, you barely remember any of it – school was a long time ago.

All living creatures are divided into domains. Animals and plants are in the same domain (Eukarya: possess a membrane bound cell organism). Then the domain is divided into kingdoms. Today we’re only interested in the plant kingdom (Plantae: possess primary chloroplast). The kingdom is divided into divisions, phylum or sub-kingdoms. The Plantae Kingdom has twelve divisions. Depending on which resource you use and how detail oriented they are it can get really complicated at this point. The levels we travel through are green plants, land plants, vascular plants (possess tracheids), seed plants (produce seeds, as opposed to spores) and finally flowering plants which lands us in the Magnoliophyta Division.  

Now we can begin to see how the classification of plants can be used to identify them. All the plants in the Magnoliophyta Division have leaves, stems, and roots. They have seeds enclosed in a shell-like coating. Their seeds are spread by the wind, water, or animals so they can grow in new places.  Of course, most of the plants I deal with fall into this category, so that’s not enough to identify this flower. Let’s keep digging (pun intended).

The Magnoliophyta Division is divided into two classes: Liliopsida Class and the Magnoliopsida Class. (Whew! Glad I don’t have to pronounce these.) Believe it or not, the distinction between the plants in these two groups is whether young seedlings have one or two seed leaves. In all but the most recent classifications, our flower is part of the two-leave seedling group.

I give up! This is complicated. No wonder it takes a degree in botany to figure it out. It’s made even more complicated by the fact that the scientist themselves don’t agree. So, let’s just get to the nitty-gritty. My friend told me to look up the Mallow Family. What made her suggest this?

Do you see how this flower has a prominent column of fused stamens? Now count the petals – there are five. Both are characteristics of the Mallow family. Another member of the Mallow family is the hibiscus – see the resemblance?  It was this resemblance that made my friend suggest the Mallow Family.

Okra and cotton are also members of the Mallow family. The root of the true marsh mallow, a native of Europe, was formerly used for the confection marshmallow, which is now made from syrup, gelatin, and other ingredients. I bet you never stopped to wonder why those sugary, puff balls were called marshmallows before – I certainly didn’t.

One of the reasons I was having such a hard time identifying the flower is because it has so many different common names. It is known as Turkscap, Drummond’s Turkscap, Drummond Turkscap, Wax Mallow, Drummond's Wax Mallow, Drummond Wax Mallow, Red Mallow, Texas Mallow, Mexican Apple, Sleeping Hibiscus, Bleeding Hearts, and Manzanilla. Have you ever heard of any of these?

I finally got the information that started my search. These flowers are the caterpillar host plant for ten different butterfly and moth species, and the Monarch is one of them. What a wonderful find, and I didn’t even have to plant it.

The next time you find a flower you can’t identify, take a step back and consider what other flowers it resembles. Find out what flower family they belong to, and maybe you can identify your unknown flower as well. Happy hunting.