Are the California Poppy and Carrot related?
From The San Francisco Chronicle. Thursday, July 26 2012.
Q: Are California poppies related to carrots? The plants look so similar.
A: I see what you mean, in that the leaves of both are divided into narrow segments and the main root of a California poppy is actually orange. But no, they are not closely related.
In identifying and classifying a plant, what’s important to see is the flower. When you look at the flowers of these two plants together, you can see how different they are.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) flowers are borne one each at the top of bare stems. Each has four showy petals and many stamens. When the flower forms a seedpod, it is elongated and splits at the side to release its seeds.
Carrot (Daucus carota) flowers are arranged on the stem in a flat flowerhead, each flower on a short flower stem. Each tiny white flower has five petals and five stamens. When the flowers form seeds, they sit individually on top of the flower stems until they fall to the ground.
These different flower forms and arrangements are typical of the two different plant families in which these plants are classified. Flowers of the poppy family, the Papaveraceae, all have four petals, many stamens, and a pod that opens by splitting or by opening pores as it dries so the seeds can escape. We grow many kinds of poppies in our flower gardens, including the Matilija poppy, another California native plant.
The carrot has been classified in the Apiaceae, all of which bear small five-parted flowers, usually arranged in flat heads called umbels (the word derives from the same Latin word as umbrella, another ribbed, round structure). Besides carrot, other edible members of this plant family are parsley, celery, fennel, cilantro and parsnip. However not all family members are edible: Poison hemlock, a common Bay Area weed, is indeed quite poisonous.
When early botanists grouped plants into families, they were presuming genetic relationships. They gave extra importance to similarities among flowers, because flowers evolve more slowly than leaves and other plant parts. Why is that? Because a change in the form of a flower is so likely to reduce a plant’s ability to reproduce. Perhaps a pollinator won’t be attracted, or a pod won’t open correctly. Such errors would lead to no offspring, so no evolutionary change.
As understanding of genetics improves, and plant biologists describe entire genomes, most of the earlier plant classifications have proven correct. We sometimes learn that modern knowledge has led to a plant reclassification, but I am certain that California poppy and carrot are going to remain firmly distinct, in their separate plant families.