Back when I was half my current age, or maybe younger, I learned that this pretty yellow flower, with a big dandelion-like puff of seeds, was called goatsbeard. It’s an introduced species in North America, common in most states except a few in the deep south, but native to Eurasia. Since goatsbeard is an example of the confusion that can arise from plant names I’ll use this weed as the jumping off point. I’ll get to a native goatsbeard a little later. Stick with me.
Our yellow-flowered goatsbeard has several other names. The definitive one is Tragopogon dubius. At least it’s definitive until some taxonomist decides it’s really something else and convinces other taxonomists to go along. The Latin name is derived from the Greek tragos, goat, and pogon, beard. The puffy seedheads look a bit like the beard on a goat.
The plant was given that Latin name by Joannes Antonius (Giovanni Antonio) Scopoli way back in 1772, and published in Flora Carolinica. In many botanical references you’ll see the name written as Tragopogon dubius Scop. The last part is a standard abbreviation for the author’s name. It’s also been called Tragopogon major and T. dubius ssp. major. Those were given more recently, so under one of the rules of botanical names the first published name takes precedence. It’s complicated and confusing.
Also confusing is that this plant also has several common names. I learned it as goatsbeard, which is sometimes written as goat’s beard. More recently I learned it was yellow salsify, or maybe oysterplant. The USDA Plants database also gives Western goat’s beard, salsifis majeur, western salsify, wild oysterplant, and yellow goat’s beard as common names.
If you poke goatsbeard into Wikipedia you’ll learn that there are plants in two other genera that share the common name. Let’s look at the one that’s native to North America: Aruncus.
Goatsbeard, the native, is a showy woodland plant that grows up to seven feet tall, topped by wispy plumes of creamy white blossoms. The currently accepted Latin name is Aruncus dioicus. The genus name drives from the Greek aryngos, meaning goat’s beard. There are three native varieties: var. acuminatus on the west coast of the US and Canada, var. dioicus east of the Mississippi (plus Oklahoma and Missouri), and var. pubescens which has a more limited distribution in the east.
You might have learned this plant as spaghetti flower or bride’s feathers. CalFlora uses bride’s feathers but everyone I know in the northwest calls it goatsbeard. The Washington Flora Checklist calls it Sylvan goatsbeard. In Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest (1961) it was known as Aruncus sylvester, lumped with the Asian species. Current taxonomy appears to lump them all together as A. dioicus. It was once considered to be Spiraea aruncus. Does your brain hurt yet?
Aruncus dioicus is dioecious, which means male and female flowers are on separate plants. That’s the derivation of the species name. From a distance they look very similar, but upon closer examination you’ll see that the girl flowers are a little thicker and showier, the boys are thinner and wispier. It’s pollinated by a variety of small insects, which Ellen Sousa noted earlier this summer in her post on Beautiful Wildlife Garden.
Whatever you call it, Aruncus dioicus is a wonderful native plant that thrives in moist part shade on woodland edges. I see it most frequently in the wild at the side of both roads and trails where it wafts back and forth in the gentlest of breezes. It should be easy to grow in most gardens that have reasonably fertile soil, some moisture, and shade for part of the day. The hotter the environment the more shade it will want. Since goatsbeard is a big and vigorous plant, you’ll want to plant it toward the back of a border so it doesn’t overwhelm other more delicate plants. The Missouri Botanical Garden says it’s pretty much pest and disease free.
Goatsbeard can also be an accent plant in a big border. Come fall, the seedheads dangle gracefully above the desiccating foliage.
Getting back to the name business, it’s not something to lose sleep over. Many plants have several common names, and the same common name may be applied to many plants. The important thing is to be able to communicate about the living, growing, blooming thing with the people around you. One reason for the multiple names is regional differences, which means that if you’re mostly talking to people in the same area you’re likely share the same names for plants you see nearby.
On the Latin side, we’re all frustrated by name changes. Most of the changes are now being driven by detailed DNA analysis. That’s teaching us a great deal about the origins and relationships of species but in the process it’s turning some of what we thought we knew upside down. It’s going to take a while for taxonomy to settle down again. In the meantime, use whichever Latin name you’re most comfortable with. In the northwest we still use many of the names in our most recent flora, Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest, published as five volumes in the 1960s and edited by C. Leo Hitchcock at the University of Washington. The new names, and organization, in the 2011 Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California can be confusing to old-timers. The plants themselves don’t care what we call them.
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