By Chris Firestone
Common names for plants are easy to remember, not standardized, and vary by region. Arising from many sources, these names are often descriptive of plant morphology. Therefore, a common name for a plant with a look-alike or other similarity may be named “false” or “fools.” If you aren’t paying attention, you may be fooled.
My favorite look-alikes found in Penn’s Woods are American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and fool’s sang or wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis). There are several differences but the most obvious is the arrangement of the leaves. American ginseng has palmately compound leaves with five leaflets and fool’s sang has pinnately compound leaves with up to five leaflets. Both have medicinal properties, but due to American ginseng’s popularity around the world, it is harvested and planted for sale.
Two common look-alike species that can be found in the woods are false solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) and solomon’s seal (Polygonatum pubescen), both native and in the Ruscaceae or butcher broom family. False solomon’s seal has flowers at the terminal end of an arched, leafy stem and solomon’s seal flowers dangle under the stem. There are three additional species of Maianthemum found in Pennsylvania, one of which, Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), carries false lily-of-the-valley as an additional common name. The European lily-of-the valley is closely related and is also in this same family.
Although they look nothing alike and are native on different continents, false hellebore (Veratrum viride) and hellebore (Helleborus ssp) both share the common name “hellebore.” What they do have in common is that they are both toxic and steeped in folklore about their malicious uses. False hellebore, in the bunchflower family, is common in Pennsylvania wetlands and blooms in the summer. Hellebore or Christmas rose, in the buttercup family, originated in Europe, but has a wide distribution due to cultivation and blooms as early as late winter.
Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) and true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) are two species in the Fabaceae (pea) family that are native to different continents. Blue false indigo, which is not common in PA, can be found on riverbank scour areas and gravel bars, whereas true indigo is native to Asia, widely cultivated and used for indigo dye for over 4,000 years. Crushed leaves of blue false indigo will also produce a blue solution like true indigo.
It’s April Fool’s Day, so beware the fools and jokes that people play, and remember, nature has her own way of fooling too!
Forest Fridays is a feature of the DCNR Bureau of Forestry.