Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Beguiling Beauty of the Scorpioidal Cyme

Botanical descriptive terminology provides a rich source of interest for anyone who enjoys the sounds of words and their precise economy of meaning. Try speaking the following, a few times over, as an incantation: panicle; raceme; dichasium; corymb; cyme; umbel. They are all terms found in identification keys and floras for the arrangement of flowers in an inflorescence, combining precision of meaning with a hint of the classical linguistic roots that underpin botany, that most ancient of biological sciences.

The plant in the image below, comfrey, has an inflorescence described by my favourite of these terms: a scorpioidal cyme. 

A cyme is, according to the glossary in my old college copy of Clapham, Tutin and Warburg's Flora of the British Isles, 'an inflorescence whose growing points are each in turn terminated by a flower, so that the continued growth of the inflorescence depends on the production of new lateral growing points'. In comfrey's case, and in the case of many members of the family Boraginaceae, to which it belongs, the cyme is curled like a scorpion's tail, with a degree of precision that could surely be expressed in a mathematical equation. If you have forget-me-nots in your garden, they too are members of the Boraginaceae and have flowers arranged in a scorpioidal cyme.

The inflorescences, with their diadems of purple buds that have a sting in their terminology, must surely - at some time - have inspired a jeweller to create something similar as a brooch.....?

Incidentally, the publication of Clapham, Tutin and Warburg's Flora of the British Isles, a landmark in British field botany, also celebrates its diamond jubilee this year.


  1. We saw a lot of Comfrey yesterday at Sutton Hoo ... and I am disappointed to say that I was so busy looking for insects (like this) along the path that I failed to notice the stunning shapes of the Comfrey. Your photos are exquisite!

  2. Thanks Caroline, I think the comfrey inflorescences are at their best just before the first one opens.Those little red and black froghoppers must have a very short season, don't you think? There seem to be a lot of them for a few days then they disappear from view again quite quickly...

  3. Ooh, I need to find some comfrey in the early stages of bloom, so I can drop "scorpioidal cyme" into conversation! Wonderful photos of this plant.

  4. It's a memorable term, isn't it swanscot?


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