Sunday, August 16, 2009

Abutilon theophrasti

Congratulations to Keith, who correctly named the quiz plant from a few days ago as Abutilon theophrasti, and to Justin, who hinted at one of its common names (Velvetleaf). Some of the other common names for this species include Butterprint (as Keith noted), Indian Mallow (a reference to its family and country of origin), Buttonweed (a reference to the shape of the fruit), Pie-marker (likely another reference to the fruit shape), and China Jute (a reference to its use as a fiber). Abutilon theophrasti is a weed in North America, found in every state except Alaska and Hawaii, as well as in the southern tier of Canadian provinces.

Abutilon is an Arabic word meaning mallow-like plant, while the specific epithet, theophrasti (or theophrastii) is a reference to the Greek philosopher and botansist Theophrastus. Velvetleaf is a member of the Malvaceae (mallow family), a family of plants that I have enjoyed since I first learned the plant Hibiscus rosa-sinensis (Shoeblackplant) in the Bahamas when I was in college. The flowers of Abutilon theophrasti have that same characteristic mallow look, with a column of united filaments with numerous stamens. I'd never spent much time looking at the flowers of this species before, as I usually recognize it by its velvety, heart-shaped leaves, and don't give it a second glance.

Above is a photograph showing the characteristic fruit of Abutilon theophrasti. This annual species can be a serious weed in agricultural fields, leading to substantial decreases in crop yields and costing hundreds of millions of dollars in control efforts.

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