Tulips Tulips
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A Botanist's View:
Cousins of the Tulip Plant

Dog Tooth Violet
(Erythronium sp.)

A Wild Sign of Spring
Just as the ground thaws and the first scent of spring is in the air, take a walk through the woodlands and creek beds. Although all around it seems brown and dead looking, you may be surprised to find a lovely lily-like flower nodding above two narrow, light-green leaves. Where you find one, look carefully for others because they often cluster in one area.

"The white blossoms of the shad-bush (Amelanchier sp.) gleam from the thicket, and the sheltered hillside is already starred with the blood-root and anemone when we go to seek the yellow adder's tongue."
- from How to Know the Wildflowers, published in 1912.

What's in a Name?
Originally a name for the Old World plant, the Dog Tooth Violet is also called the Trout Lily.
Picture for a moment a dog's tooth, and then picture a trout's mottled skin. Maybe now you can understand how the Erythronium denscanis got its common name. (The mystery is in how it got another name, adder's tongue!).
Why do you think these other names were also chosen for the Dog Tooth Violet: fawn lily and yellow snowdrop?

These Plants are Cousins
Every plant has physical characteristics that make it unique. Scientists group plants into families according to the kinds of flowers and fruit that they bear. The tulip and the Dogtooth Violet are kind of like cousins - they are both in the same family, along with lots of others. Their family is called Liliaceae.
Here are some of the main characteristics of plants in the Liliaceae (pronounced, li-LE-A-CEE-e):

  • six parted perianth (petals) generally
  • six stamens, one pistil
  • stigma generally three-lobed, or three separate stigmas on a three-branched style
  • fruits generally three-chambered pods or berries

When your tulips bloom this spring take a closer look at the flowers. How many characteristics of the family Liliaceae can you identify?

Try This!
One hundred years ago as a student, my great-grandfather Lemuel studied plants in school. His lab notebook (copyright date 1905) contains detailed descriptions and drawings of many of the spring flowers that were found in nearby woodlands, fields and gardens. Students were responsible for learning and using the correct botanical terms for roots, leaves, flowers and fruits. They also made notes about where the plants might be found.

Lemuel's lab notebook.
Print a blank copy to record in your own notebooks.
  • Study his drawing and description of the 'Star of Bethlehem, another cousin of the tulip plant.
  • Research and learn some botanical vocabulary. Examine your tulips. Copy and use Lemuel's lab notebook page or make your own in your own lab notebook. Try looking at your Red Emperor tulip plants through the eyes of a botanist.

What other kinds of flowers can you find for study this springtime?

National Science Education Standards

Life Science
Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, reproduction. (K-4)

Millions of species of animals, plants, and microorganisms are alive today. Although different species might look dissimilar, the unity among organisms becomes apparent from an analysis of internal structures, the similarity of their chemical processes, and the evidence of common ancestry. (5-8)

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