You know that big, beautiful ponytail palm in your yard? It’s not one — a palm, that is.
Turns out a lot of plants aren’t what we call them. While it might not be vital to know the full scientific name of what you grow, misidentification could lead to using the wrong fertilizer, or planting something in the wrong location. If a disease or harmful pest attacking one type of plant versus another comes to town, knowing if you have the vulnerable plants can make all the difference. Here are some common plant misnomers.
Sago palm ( Cycas revoluta): Calling this common landscape plant a palm must make botanists and horticulturalists shudder. The sago palm is a cycad and part of the ancient lineage of non-flowering plants, the gymnosperms. Comparing cycads to palms is sort of like comparing humans to lizards: Sure, we are both animals with a head and four limbs, but our last common ancestor lived a very long time ago. Cycads are only very distantly related to palms; in fact, cycads are more closely related to pine trees than palm trees. But superficially at least, their foliage can resemble the fronds of palms. Another plant, Metroxylon sagu, also called the “true sago palm,” actually is a palm (in the palm family Arecaceae).
Common screw pine ( Pandanus utilis): This tropical tree doesn’t look like a pine at all. Its leaves do appear to grow in a corkscrew manner around the trunk, indeed like the threads on a screw. So part of its common name is accurate. However there’s not much piney about it: the pandanus is a flowering tree, unlike a pine, which not only doesn’t flower, but has a completely separate lineage. Pandanus trees prefer growing along tropical shores, and their numerous supporting prop roots can form an impenetrable barrier.
A pandanus once grew in my backyard. I unfortunately had to remove it, since it was in a very inconvenient location considering its painfully spikey leaves. How its seed germinated there will remain a mystery; I don’t live anywhere near water. Its immature form, close to the ground, resembled a bromeliad sans center tank.
Norfolk pine ( Araucaria heterophylla) and Cook pine ( Araucaria columnaris): I combine these two because they are often confused with each other, both commonly sold as “Christmas trees.” It seems anything with green needle-like leaves is destined to be called a pine. Though they are conifers, like pines, true pines belong to a different family. Species in the Araucaria genus grow natively only in the southern hemisphere, with an inordinate number on the islands of New Caledonia, east of Australia. This may reflect that the genus originates from the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana — quite a distinguished descent! Today you can buy one at almost any garden store or nursery.
Peacock fern ( Selaginella willdenowii): This one really does resemble a fern with its feathery fronds, ground-hugging growth, and niche in the shady understory. It even produces spores for reproduction. Peacock fern is considered a spikemoss, and is sometimes called peacock moss or Willdenow’s moss, but these too are misnomers, since it’s also not a moss (bryophyte). Along with some other plants, it’s considered a “fern ally,” since it shares some fern-like traits.
Leaves of this plant receiving less light appear blue; as they mature or are exposed to brighter light, the blue fades and green dominates, but it still looks almost metallic. I’m going to leave the taxonomy to the experts, and enjoy this botanical beauty for its primitive look and iridescent foliage.
Whisk fern ( Psilotum nudum): This plant is also a fern ally, though not a fern. It’s easy to miss them, but they commonly grow from the base of palms and other plants. They seem to like crevices and other rocky areas as well, and can function as epiphytes. They don’t possess true leaves or roots, but rather rely on a rhizome to act as a root system would. They grow in a parsimonious way, branching dichotomously, which makes them resemble tiny defoliated trees.
Look for them at the bases of trees next time you are on a hike.
Orchid tree, Chinese orchid tree or Hong Kong orchid tree ( Bauhinia blakeana): This beautiful pantropical tree produces some of the most striking and fragrant flowers, purple/magenta and white on this particular species. They do resemble the flowers of some orchids, but nothing in the orchid family can be considered a tree. I’m sure whoever called it an orchid tree knew this, but couldn’t help notice the similarity between the flowers. Hummingbirds are known to frequent the tree for its nectar.
The flag of Hong Kong features the flower of Bauhinia blakeana, which incidentally is believed to be a cross between Bauhinia purpurea and Bauhinia variegata. It’s a common landscaping tree in South Florida.
Spanish moss ( Tillandsia usneoides): A requirement for any Southern Gothic novel setting, Spanish moss just screams hot, humid and sultry. It drapes in silver-green strands from live oak and cypress limbs all over the Southeast — possibly attracted to the foliar leaching of minerals these trees provide — but will make its home on other trees. Spanish moss is a bromeliad, quite closely related to pineapples and other tillandsia “airplants.” Like many bromeliads, it is an epiphyte, but not a parasite. There are lots of folk tales about how it got its name, mostly related to love, loss or the beards of early Spanish and French explorers. It does certainly flower — definitely not a moss. It’s not really Spanish or French either for that matter, having grown in the Southeast long before Europeans stumbled upon the New World.
Spanish moss will not harm its host tree; in fact many creatures depend on it. Zebra longwing butterflies sometimes roost in it, birds can use it to line nests, and it can offer shelter to snakes, frogs, bats and countless insects and arachnids, including a spider that strongly prefers it. Humans have used it for stuffing and insulation.
Ball moss ( Tillandsia recurvata): A member of the same genus as Spanish moss, ball moss is the globular mass of silvery green you find everywhere in South Florida, usually having fallen from a tree, still with a twig stuck through its center. Like Spanish moss, it is a bromeliad, and not at all a moss. The humble ball moss is being investigated for possible anti-carcinogenic and tumor-fighting properties.
Traveler’s palm ( Ravenala madagascariensis): The story goes that lost travelers in need of water can access some at the base of the traveler palm’s leaves. Its base yields to multiple stems reaching out to form what resembles a huge Chinese folding fan. It also resembles Dypsis decaryi, the triangle palm (which actually is a palm). But take a hard look, and it starts to appear most un-palm-like. Its broad, flat leaves, often tattered by wind, resemble those of bird of paradise and banana plants. Indeed, traveler’s palm, bird of paradise, bananas and ginger are all members of the order Zingiberales. The signage at Fairchild wisely labels it as traveler’s tree, avoiding the misnomer altogether.
Ponytail palm ( Beaucarnea recurvata): Anyone who takes a tram tour at Fairchild will learn that the common ornamental ponytail palm isn’t a palm at all. True, it appears to have a “trunk” along with a spray of leaves at the top, sort of like a palm, but the ponytail is a member of the Asparagaceae family, related — among many others — to agaves and hostas. It’s sometimes called an elephant’s foot plant, due to its swollen base.
Kenneth Setzer is writer and editor at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden