The X-Bulbs, plus Greek Sword

It started a while back with a pair of morning names: Ixia and Sparaxis. Two showy bulbs, united by the letter X. They led to (in alphabetical order) ChionodoxaCyanixia, Hesperoxiphon, Ixiolirion, Oxalis, Xenoscapa. And from Hesperoxiphon, through its sword-bearing component (Gk. xiphos ‘sword’), to Xiphion, which we know now in its Latin version Gladiolus.

Along the way, some reflections on categorization and labeling in the plant world.

Systematic metonymies. The names of plants are often identical to the names of culturally significant parts or products of the plants: among them, flowers, fruits (including nuts), seeds, leaves, and underground storage organs. Tulip, for instance, can refer to the plant (We have a bed of tall tulips in the front garden), to its flower (A bouquet of red tulips), or to its bulb (mail order for bulbs: Send two dozen medium tulips). These identities arise historically from metonymies operating in different directions: the name of a showy flower typically becomes also the name of the plant that bears these flowers, though sometimes the historical development goes the other way, as with sweet pea. In the case of plants with showy flowers, dictionaries usually list the whole-plant sense as the first, or even the only, one, as with NOAD2’s entry for tulip:

noun tulip: a bulbous spring-flowering plant of the lily family, with boldly colored cup-shaped flowers. ORIGIN late 16th century: from French tulipe, via Turkish from Persian dulband ‘turban,’ from the shape of the expanded flower.

There’s no subentry for ‘flower of the tulip plant’ (though the OED‘s cites indicate that the word was used first for the flower, then for the whole plant); the metonymy is so regular and pervasive that even big dictionaries are reluctant to multiply subsenses, and they treat the who-plant sense as conceptually primary.

What is a bulb? The Random House Book of Bulbs, by Roger Phillips & Martyn Rix, ed. by Brian Mathew (rev. ed. Random House, 1989) asks this question on p. 6 and announces:

In this book we have taken a wide definition of the term bulb, to include all plants which form swollen underground storage roots or stems to survive the dry or cold season.

The underlined material constitutes a pretty good characterization — its first part specifying form, its second function — of the category BULB-V (V for a vernacular, everyday, or ordinary-life category, one that non-specialists label simply bulb), embracing at least three technical, or specialist, categories — BULB-B (B for a botanical, technical category), CORM, RHIZOME — and part or all of a fourth, TUBER-B.

As is so often the case, dictionaries and many reference works privilege the labels for technical — in this case, botanical — categories. Here’s NOAD2, treating bulb as a label for BULB-B, with no mention of BULB-V:

noun bulb: a rounded underground storage organ present in some plants, notably those of the lily family, consisting of a short stem surrounded by fleshy scale leaves or leaf bases and lying dormant over winter; a plant grown from a bulb [a metonymic extension of the first subsense].

AHD5 puts BULB-B first, but it goes on to BULB-V:

noun bulb: Botany a. A short, modified, underground stem surrounded by usually fleshy modified leaves that contain stored food for the shoot within: an onion bulb, a tulip bulb. b. A similar underground stem or root, such as a corm, rhizome, or tuber. c. A plant that grows from a bulb [a metonymic extension of sense a or b].

Similarly, but at greater length, in Bulbs for the Home Gardener, by Bebe Miles, illust. by Judy Singer (Grosset & Dunlap, 1976), on p. 25, where Miles starts with BULB-B (“true bulbs”) but then delineates BULB-V, which is in fact the category she surveys in her book, taking in BULB-Bs, CORMs, RHIZOMEs, and TUBERs —

(#1) Miles p. 24

(#2) Miles p. 25

Phillips & Rix use photographs, Miles uses drawings. As with bird books, wildflower guides, handbooks of trees, and, yes, sex manuals, drawings are usually considerably more helpful than photos

Their plant coverage isn’t quite the same, with Miles generally more inclusive than P&R: Miles lists dahlias (which are tubers) and tuberous, or hardy, begonias, Phillips & Rix do not; both list (tuberous) cyclamens; neither lists mertensia.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, in botanical usage, bulb, corm, rhizome, tuber are generally used only of plant parts, and the plants themselves are referred to with an Adj of the form N + –ous ‘having an N, N-bearing’: bulbous, cormous, rhizomatous, tuberous. So: “Sparaxis bulbifera is a cormous plant”. In ordinary language, the names of the plant parts are also used, metonymically, for the plants (both types and tokens) as wholes. So: “Sparaxis bulbifera is a corm”.

For completeness, here’s the treatment of nouns denoting types of BULB-Vs that aren’t BULB-B in NOAD2:

noun corm: a rounded underground storage organ present in plants such as crocuses, gladioli, and cyclamens, consisting of a swollen stem base covered with scale leaves.

noun rhizome: a continuously growing horizontal underground stem that puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals.

noun tuber: a much thickened underground part of a stem or rhizome, e.g., in the potato, serving as a food reserve and bearing buds from which new plants arise; a tuberous root, e.g., of the dahlia.

(I’ll just note here that there seems to be some reluctance, on everybody’s part, to use the ordinary-language label bulb for the tubers of plants whose flowers aren’t culturally significant, like potatoes and sweet potatoes.)

The X-Men. From Wikipedia:

The X-Men are a team of fictional superheroes appearing in American comic books published by Marvel Comics. Created by writer Stan Lee and artist/co-writer Jack Kirby, the characters first appeared in The X-Men #1 (September 1963). They are among the most recognizable and successful intellectual properties of Marvel Comics, appearing in numerous books, television shows, films, and video games.

The X-Men are mutants, a subspecies of humans who are born with superhuman abilities. The X-Men fight for peace and equality between normal humans and mutants in a world where antimutant bigotry is fierce and widespread. They are led by Charles Xavier, also known as Professor X, a powerful mutant telepath who can control and read minds. Their archenemy is Magneto, a powerful mutant with the ability to generate and control magnetic fields. Professor X and Magneto have opposing views and philosophies regarding the relationship between mutants and humans…

Professor X is the founder of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters at a location commonly called the X-Mansion, which recruits mutants from around the world. Located in Westchester County, New York, the X-Mansion is the home and training site of the X-Men. The founding five members of the X-Men who appear in The X-Men #1 (September 1963) are Angel (Archangel), Beast, Cyclops, Iceman, and Marvel Girl (Jean Grey); Professor X and Magneto also made their first appearances in The X-Men #1. Since then, dozens of mutants from various countries and diverse backgrounds have held membership as X-Men [among them, Colossus (from the Soviet Union), Nightcrawler (from West Germany), Storm (from Kenya), Thunderbird (a Native American of Apache descent), Banshee (from Ireland), Sunfire (from Japan), and Wolverine (from Canada)].

The Marvel universes seem to have an endless supply of X-Men, though only a few of them have staying power. The world of X-Bulbs is very much smaller: I’ll present 8 of them here, starting with  the plants of my dream, the closely related Ixia and Sparaxis, then running through Chionodoxa to Xenoscapa, in alphabetical order, with Xiphion (aka Greek Sword) as an X-Bulb from the past.

B1, from Wikipedia:


The genus Ixia consists of a number of cormous plants native to South Africa from the Iridaceae family and Ixioideae subfamily. Some of them are known as the corn lily [or wand flowers]. Some distinctive traits include sword-like leaves and long wiry stems with star-shaped flowers. It usually prefers well-drained soil. The popular corn lily has specific, not very intense fragrance. It is often visited by many insects such as bees. The Ixia are also used sometimes as ornamental plants.

The genus name is derived from the Ancient Greek ἰξία (ixia) (= χαμαιλέων λευκός, chamaeleon leukos), the pine thistle, Carlina gummifera, an unrelated plant in the Asteraceae (daisy) family.

B2, from Wikipedia:


Sparaxis (harlequin flower) is a genus in the family Iridaceae with about 13 species endemic to Cape Province, South Africa.

All are perennials that grow during the wet winter season, flower in spring and survive underground as dormant corms over summer. Their conspicuous flowers have six tepals, which in most species are equal in size and shape.

Sparaxis bulbifera is the most commonly cultivated of the genus, with flowers from cream to yellow or purple. S. grandiflora is a similar but larger plant. Sparaxis tricolor has bright red flowers with yellow and black centres. Many named hybrid cultivars were bred from S. bulbifera and S. tricolor.

[There is also a] group of species with asymmetrical flowers marked in mauve and yellow, including Sparaxis variegata and Sparaxis villosa

The genus name is derived from the Greek word sparasso, meaning “to tear”, and alludes to the shape of the floral bracts.

I’m very fond of Ixia and Sparaxis flowers, and grew them in our Columbus OH garden, but they didn’t last more than a year or two. They really want a Mediterranean climate, like their native South Africa (or the California coast).

B3, Chionodoxa, treated in a 4/3/14 posting of mine “glory-of-the-snow”:


B4, with a return of the name Ixia. From Wikipedia:

(#6) I couldn’t find a good image of the modest Cyanixia plant, so here’s its showy cousin Babiana stricta instead

Cyanixia is a genus of plants in the Iridaceae, first described in 2003. It contains only one known species, Cyanixia socotrana, a perennial, herbaceous and bulbous plant species endemic to the Island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, part of the Republic of Yemen.

The genus name is derived from Greek words Ixia, referring to the radially symmetrical flowers in the genus of that name, as well as cyanos, meaning “blue”. The species was for many years considered a member of the South African genus Babiana but recognized as a distinct genus in 2003.

B5, from Wikipedia:


Hesperoxiphion is a genus of flowering plants in the family Iridaceae, first described as a genus in 1877. It is native to northwestern South America. The genus name is derived from the Greek words hesperos, meaning “western”, and xiphos, meaning “sword”. [cf. genus Xiphohorus ‘sword-bearer’ of tropical fish known commonly as swordtails; and the genus Xiphopteris of sword-ferns]

B6, with another return of the name Ixia. From Wikipedia:

(#8) Ixiolirion tataricum

Ixiolirion is a genus [with four species] of flowering plants native to central and southwest Asia, first described as a genus in 1821… The genus name – composed of Ixio– and lirion (‘lily’) – means ‘Ixia-like lily’.

B7, an exceptional bulb in a dicotyledon. On the genus and then on the species that afflicts me here in California:

(#9) The invasive species I think of as weed sorrel

Oxalis is a large genus of flowering plants in the wood-sorrel family Oxalidaceae [a new family on this blog, #77] comprising about 800 of the 900 known species in the family. The genus occurs throughout most of the world, except for the polar areas; species diversity is particularly rich in tropical Brazil, Mexico and South Africa.

Many of the species are known as wood sorrels (sometimes written “woodsorrels” or “wood-sorrels”) as they have an acidic taste reminiscent of the unrelated sorrel proper (Rumex acetosa). Some species are called yellow sorrels or pink sorrels after the color of their flowers instead. Other species are colloquially known as false shamrocks, and some called sourgrasses.

… several species reproduce vegetatively by production of bulbils, which detach to produce new plants. (Wikipedia link)

Some of the wood sorrels are pretty, modest plants, some are showy, and a few are problematic. Like the brightly ornamental pest above:

Oxalis pes-caprae (Bermuda buttercup, African wood-sorrel, Bermuda sorrel, buttercup oxalis, Cape sorrel, English weed, goat’s-foot, sourgrass, soursob and soursop) is a species of tristylous flowering plant in the wood sorrel family Oxalidaceae.

… Like most African Oxalis species, it produces adventitious subterranean propagules [vegetative structures that can become detached from a plant and give rise to a new plant; but you have to admire the nominal adventitious subterranean propagules]. These take the form of true bulbs in botanical terms, which is unusual among dicotyledons. In fact, Oxalis pes-caprae produces small bulbs copiously, whereas most other African species produce fewer, larger bulbs.

… Indigenous to South Africa, Oxalis pes-caprae, the “Bermuda buttercup”, is an invasive species and noxious weed in many other parts of the world, including the United States (particularly coastal California), Europe, Israel and Australia. (Wikipedia link)

It’s one of the very few weeds that afflict my outdoor plants in pots: seeds and those devil bulbils.

B8, the last, a less pushy X-Bulb. From Wikipedia:

(#10) Xenoscapa fistulosa

Xenoscapa is a genus of herbaceous, perennial and bulbous plants in the Iris family (Iridaceae). It consists of only two species distributed in Africa [X. fistulosa, X. ulginosa], and is closely related to the genera Freesia. The genus name is derived from the Greek words xenos, meaning “strange” [or “foreign”], and scapa, meaning “flowering stem”.

Bonus, B9, with the root of Gk. xiphos ‘sword’ seen in B5: Xiphion, now Gladiolus (‘sword’ – well, ‘little sword’ — in Latin rather than Greek). As an X-Bulb, Greek Sword (?anal penetrator; I don’t think so). From Wikipedia:

(#11) Hybrid glads planted in a tight clump

Gladiolus (from Latin, the diminutive of gladius, a sword,) is a genus of perennial cormous flowering plants [with about 300 species] in the iris family (Iridaceae).

It is sometimes called the ‘sword lily’, but is usually called by its generic name (plural gladioli).

The genus occurs in Asia, Mediterranean Europe, South Africa, and tropical Africa. The center of diversity is in the [South African Cape]. The genera Acidanthera, Anomalesia, Homoglossum, and Oenostachys, formerly considered distinct, are now included in Gladiolus.

… Gladioli have been extensively hybridized and a wide range of ornamental flower colours are available from the many varieties. The main hybrid groups have been obtained by crossing between four or five species, followed by selection: ‘Grandiflorus’, ‘Primulines’ and ‘Nanus’. They can make very good cut flowers for display.

The plurals gladioluses (regularized pl.) and gladiolus (zero-pl.) are also common as alternatives to the borrowed Latin pl. gladioli (insisted upon by botanists); gladiolus is commonly clipped to glad, plural glads; the zero-pl. gladiolus (with final /s/) has been reinterpreted as a pl. gladiolas (with final /z/), leading to gladiola as a common alternative to sg. gladiolus, as on the Flower Gardening Made Easy site:

Gladiola bulbs were once considered a bit old-fashioned, but like many old-fashioned flowers, they’re having a bit of a comeback.

I’m not a great fan of growing glads in the flower garden, but I do love them as cut flowers and always grow a couple of rows in the vegetable garden for that purpose.

My father was a glad fancier, once we had a garden (in Wyomissing Hills PA) big enough for them; he always called them glads or gladiolas. I was (and am) inclined to the pl. gladioluses (though I admit that a five-syllable plural is a lot to swallow). But gladioli has always sounded impossibly pedantic to me, and I don’t use it, in writing or in speech.

As for growing glads in the garden, I sympathize with the Flower Gardening site’s Yvonne Cunnington. The flowers are gorgeous, but otherwise the plants look like two-dimensional green sticks awkwardly plunked down in the garden, often at an off-vertical, somewhat drunken angle. One solution is to surround individual plants with attractive lower-growing plants; this is what Gamble Garden in Palo Alto tries to do, not always with complete success.

(Plantings like the one in #11 are very hard to achieve, given the plant’s fairly large corms.)

One Response to “The X-Bulbs, plus Greek Sword”

  1. [BLOG] Some Tuesday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky meditates on language, moving from the strange names of the parts of flowers to the […]

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