“Are artichokes and pine cones related?”

Since we’ve moved to California, I’ve been mildly obsessed with pine cones. This is why.

You think that this is a perspective trick, but no. That pine cone really is almost tall enough to reach the bottom of our coffee table. Also, anecdotal evidence suggests that pine cones this big are terrifying for cats. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Although I prefer to think of these pine cones as POUSs (Pinecones of Unusual Size), the locals refer to them as widow-makers. When we moved in to our house, the neighbors made a point of warning us that the squirrels who live in the pine tree the POUSs come from love to use human heads for target practice. The POUSs are really heavy, so I hope the squirrels continue to miss.

I’m no expert, but as far as I can tell, the tree out back is probably a Coulter pine. Although Coulter pines are native to Southern California, they can found as far north as San Francisco.

You know what else I’ve dodged a lot of in California?

Artichokes. Nearly all of the artichokes grown commercially in the US are grown right here in California.

But in dodging both pine cones and artichokes, I can’t help but keep noticing how physically similar they are.

Sure, one is made of wood, and the other of vegetable, but ignoring that little discrepancy, their petal bud forms are pretty similar — especially if you compare an unopened pine cone to an artichoke.

Which got me wondering…

Are pine cones and artichokes related?

Common sense says that the answer to this is no. Still, that sort of thinking has gotten me into trouble in the past, so let’s find out for sure.

Step 1: Learn their scientific names.   

One of the benefits of having a mild obsession with paleontology is that scientific names are useful, rather than scary, things. Scientific names, the pair of Latin (or Greek) words that appear in parenthesis behind the common name of whatever it is you’re talking about, both uniquely identify a living organism and tell us a bit about how it relates to other living organisms. (This method of naming organisms is also called binomial nomenclature.)

Take the scientific name for the Coulter pine, for example: Pinus coulteri. The first word tells us which genus the plant belongs to (Pinus), while the second word identifies this species of tree in particular (coulteri, the pine tree discovered by Dr. Coulter).

The type of artichoke I’m interested in, the globe artichoke, is properly referred to as Cynara scolymus.

Now that we know that the Coulter pine is a member of the genus Pinus and the artichoke of the genus Cynara, we can figure out where they fall on the plant family tree (and by extension what, if any relationship they have to one another).

But first, let’s clarify what I mean by the phrase plant family tree

Scientists classify plants and animals using a multi-level organization scheme that sorts organisms into various categories according to their distinguishing characteristics. The system we use today, taxonomy, was developed by Carolus Linnaeus back in the 1700s, who was not coincidentally known as the Father of Taxonomy.

Linnaeus’s system has been tweaked a bit over time, as scientists have learned more about the world and the organisms that populate it. For example, Linnaeus originally used his system to sort both living and nonliving things, but scientists now only use taxonomy to sort living organisms. Overall though, his system has held up pretty well.

So when I talk about a plant family tree, I mean this process of sorting organisms into a hierarchy (taxonomy).  From most specific to least, the categories used in this system are:

  • Species
  • Genus
  • Family
  • Order
  • Class
  • Phylum (or division)
  • Kingdom
  • Domain

Let’s get started.

Step 2: Classify the Coulter pine.

Species and genus are easy. The scientific name, Pinus coulterii, tells us those.

Working up:

  • The 120 different varieties of pine trees that form the genus Pinus join with about 100 additional species such as firs, hemlocks, and spruce trees to form the family Pinaceae
  • The various evergreen trees in Pinaceae join with cypresses to form the order Pinales
  • The trees in Pinales combine with yew trees in the order Taxales to form the class Pinopsida
  • Pinopsida belongs to the phylum Coniferophyta, a group of woody, mostly evergreen, non-flowering (gymnosperm) plants, which produce cones in which the seeds are exposed in the cone scales rather than tucked away in some sort of ovary
  • Coniferophyta, of course, is part of the Plantae kingdom, which includes all living or extinct plants
  • And Plantae belongs to the domain Eukarya, which includes all organisms that have cells with a unique nucleus that contains their genetic material (this category was obviously added after Linnaeus’ time)

Whew.

Here’s what that looks like in a chart.

This doesn’t feel helpful yet. Let’s do the same thing for artichokes and see if that makes a difference.

Step 3: Classify the artichoke.

Working up from the genus and species for Cynara scolymus we learn that:

  • Artichokes are actually the bud of a plant from the thistle family, which means that they, along with asters, daisies, and sunflowers, belong to the family Asteraceae
  • The flowering plants in Asteraceae combine with the bellflowers in the Campanulacease family to form the order Asterales
  • Plants in Asterales join with roses, magnolias, and other flowering plants to form the class Magnoliopsida
  • Plants in Magnoliopsida are part of the phylum Magnoliophyta
  • Magnoliophyta are part of the Plantae kingdom
  • And as we learned before, Plantae belongs to the domain Eukarya, which includes all organisms that have cells with a unique nucleus that contains their genetic material

Whew. I hope I got all that right. Here’s what that looks like on a chart.

Step 4: Compare the charts to see what they tell us about how artichokes and pine trees are related.

The lowest level the artichoke plant and the Coulter pine have in common is the Plantae kingdom, so from this I learned that artichokes and pine cones both come from plants. Other than that, they’re really not related at all.

Honestly, that was more work than I was hoping for.

Still, now that I’m certain pine tree and artichoke plants aren’t closely related, I want to know why pine cones and artichokes look so similar. What is it about that cupped petal form that is so beneficial that pine trees would use it for their seed cases and artichoke plants for their buds?

Anyone know?

Related Links: 

Remaining Box Count:

  • Downstairs: 31
  • Upstairs: 70
  • Garage: Still to be discovered

(Somebody went on strike this week.)

About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
This entry was posted in Nature, Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s