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Saturday - August 23, 2008

From: Baltimore, MD
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: General Botany
Title: Simple flowers vs. compound flowers
Answered by: Nan Hampton


Please, give the characteristics of a "simple flower" as distinct from a compound flower which has rays and "disk flowers". What type of flower is the flower of a chive,which seems to be composed of little tiny individual flowers?


According to Thomas Elpel in "Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification":

"Simple or "primitive" flowers usually have numerous sepals, petals, stamens and pistils, while more advanced flowers typically have reduced numbers of each, and the parts are often fused together."

The "standard blossom" has a calyx made up of sepals that surround the corolla which is made up of the petals that surround the male parts (stamen consisting of the filament and anther) and the female parts (pistil consisting of the stigma, style and ovary).

Elpel gives buttercups (Family Ranunculaceae) as examples of simple dicot flowers and arrowheads (Family Alismatceae) as example of simple monocot flowers. His examples of advanced flowers are orchids (Family Orchidaceae) for the monocots and asters (Family Asteraceae) for the dicots.

At first glance, a compound or composite flower like the aster would appear to be a simple flower, but they are not. For one thing their sepals are really bracts, modified leaves, and often are layered. Their "petals" are in fact individual flowers (ray flowers) which also have stamens and pistils and their heads (disk flowers) are made up of many tiny individual flowers, each of which produce their own seeds. Just to confuse things, some composite flowers have only the ray flowers (e.g., dandelions) and some have only disk flowers (e.g., thistles), but most have both (e.g., sunflowers, daisies, zinnias).

According to the Flora of North America the flowers of chive (Allium schoenoprasum) is an umbel. Here is the definition of 'umbel' from Plant Identification Terminology: An illustrated Glossary by James G. and Melinda W. Harris:

"A flat-topped or convex inflorescence with the pedicels arising more or less from a common point, like the struts of an umbrella; a highly condensed raceme."

Another flower that is an umbel is the closely-related Allium drummondii (Drummond's onion).

Ranunculus hispidus var. nitidus

Sagittaria latifolia

Cypripedium reginae

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium

Taraxacum officinale

Cirsium texanum

Helianthus annuus

Melampodium leucanthum

Zinnia grandiflora

Allium drummondii



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