Terminology Test

Jim McKenney jimmckenney@jimmckenney.com
Tue, 12 May 2009 18:52:11 PDT
The confusing term hysteranthous is the one traditionally used in English to
describe those plants whose flowers seem to appear before the leaves. 


Flowers typically are formed at the tips of the axis of growth (or axes). In
Colchicum the flowers which we see in the autumn are in fact part of the
sprout which will emerge the following spring. This is easily verified by
noticing that the seed capsules appear exactly where you would expect them
to: at the tips of the growth which appears in the spring.  The old name for
these was Filius ante Patrum – the son before the father. This was based on
the observation that the son (the seeds) appear in the spring but the father
(the flowers) do not appear until the autumn. To someone whose concept of
year is based on the calendar, the plant gives the impression of doing the
impossible: forming seed before it flowers. 


The flowers which appear in the autumn are in fact part of the following
season’s leafy sprout, not a part of the sprout which grew in the spring. 


With all due respect to the OED, the etymology of hysteranthous (the
classical Greek word for later + the word used for flower or flowering)
suggests the meaning “later flowering” or “later flower” as much as anything
else. To someone not familiar with its history of usage it might seem to
mean something like autumn blooming.  In the same sense, the proposed
alternative, hysterophyllous might seem to mean late in leafing out. 


To say that any of these words coined by combining bits and pieces of
classical Greek mean something definite or certain is a bit of a stretch.
Their meaning is determined by either by the meaning given by the person who
coins the word or by the pattern of their subsequent usage. That’s why
dictionaries typically distinguish between connotation and denotation. 


Jim McKenney


Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, 39.03871º North, 77.09829º West, USDA zone

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