Plant of the Week
Twinflower (Linnaea borealis)
By Chris Mattrick
Twinflower (Linnaea borealis) is a little waif of a plant found throughout the northern hemisphere in circumboreal habitats. Twinflower occurs in open forests, heaths, and open dry slopes in the mountains across the northern hemisphere from Siberia to Sweden and across North America. The specific epithet borealis means “northern”, referring to the plants geographic distribution.
Despite its penchant for cool dark forests, it really seems to have no particular habitat preference. It is just as commonly found under moderate deciduous canopy in either moist or average soil moisture conditions. When not in bloom it is often overlooked, ignored or accidentally crushed beneath the foot of a passing hiker. Twinflower becomes the belle of the forest when in bloom as its pink and white flowers seem to lighten the green mosses and cool dark forests where it grows.
The common name arises from the twin like nature its plant parts. The pink to white bell-like flowers are nodding and are born in pairs on short, thin Y-shaped stalks, seldom exceeding six inches in height, hence the common name “twinflower”. The flowers are highly fragrant and last about seven days, typically appearing in June or July. The leaves are also twins, paired on opposite sides of the stem, are round and leathery. The loosely matted plants are semi-woody and evergreen with leafy stems that creep over the surface of the ground from long runners. Maximum height is around 4 inches.
The naming history of this plant is fascinating. Carl Linnaeus is a distinguished figure in the field of botany. Born in Sweden in 1707, he is considered the “Father of Modern Taxonomy”. In 1753, he published the Species Plantarum in which he defines the binomial or the genus/species naming system for plants that is still in use today. During his life he was responsible for the naming of nearly 8,000 plants, as well as many animals and the scientific designation for humans: Homo sapiens. Linnaeus used many of his supporters and detractors as inspiration for naming plants. The most beautiful of plants were often named in honor of his supporters and his detractors often supplied the names of common weeds or unattractive plants. Although he was described as being one of the most arrogant men in the history of science, his arrogance did not lead him to name plants after him. Linnaea borealis was reported to be Linnaeus favorite plant, and was named by his close friend and teacher Jan Frederik Gronovious in honor of Linnaeaus. The genus contains only this species with three subspecies, one for each of the continents of the northern hemisphere. Twinflower has historically been placed in the honeysuckle (Caprifoliaceae) family, but some recent reclassifications have placed this species in a family also named for Linnaeus: the family Linneaceae.