Which ~Real Plants~ Are These 4 Emojis?

Even if you’re not a doctor in plant taxonomy, you can pretend to be one, and no choking passengers on airplanes will call your bluff!   Let’s study these four plant emojis closely for clues to their actual plant identities.

1. Herb


“An herb, such as basil or oregano.”

Basil and oregano, members of the mint family, both feature leaves that are “opposite” (directly across from each other). So far the emoji checks out!  However, the leaves in the emoji all lie in the same plane, while basil and oregano’s leaves project outward from the stem in 3D space.   The leaves in the emoji are also pointier than basil and oregano’s.

giphy (3)
Oregano, just doin’ its 3D thing

A notable feature of the emoji is the absence of axillary buds at the base of the leaves.  (Zoom waaay in to check.)  This fact, combined with the leaves’ planar layout, leads to the conclusion that the ‘leaves’ are not whole leaves at all!  Rather, the whole emoji is a single odd pinnate leaf made up of rows of leaflets.  Let’s guess an ash tree of some sort.

Easy, right?  You’re basically a plant taxonomist now.  Tell your in-laws that you’re not that type of doctor!


emoji 1

Fraxinus sp.

2. Seedling


“A seedling, a sign of spring. A new plant of some kind sprouting from the earth, hoping to grow into a large tree, flower or plant if conditions are suitable.”

This does appear to be a seedling.  Because only two leaves are present, we’ll assume that they’re the plant’s cotyledons.  “Cotyledons” are seed-leaves that pre-form in the plant embryo inside the seed, then emerge after germination and act as photosynthetic or storage organs.  Botanists divide flowering plants (Angiosperms) into two groups based on how many cotyledons are present in a plant’s seed. “Monocots” have only one cotyledon, whereas “dicots” have two.  This emoji is a dicot because it has two cotyledons.

Note that dicots can either be “eudicots” or they might belong to another lineage.    Because this emoji unhelpfully does not include an electron micrograph of the plant’s pollen grain, we’ll never know.

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The emoji we deserve (from Boston U. Biomicroscopy Lab)

While Emojipedia did correctly label the emoji as a seedling, its explanation leaves something to be desired.  (“A seedling, a sign of spring. A new plant of some kind sprouting from the earth, hoping to grow into a large tree, flower or plant if conditions are suitable.”)  Here are some criticisms:

1. Plants don’t ‘hope’. They don’t have brains.

2. “Plants” fully encompasses the more specific categories “flowers” and “large trees.”

3. Many large trees produce flowers, creating further categorical overlap.

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4. Flowers are always attached to the rest of the plant; it would be bizarre for a seedling to grow into a flower but produce no other plant organs.

5. What about small trees?


emoji 2

Dicot seedling, genus and species unknown.  Perhaps a buttercup.  Or poison ivy.  Or the logo of your favorite plant comedy blog.  Impossible to say.

3. Blossom


“A blossoming flower. Similar to the cherry blossom, but not necessarily the same shade. Blossom is also the name of a popular TV Show in the early 1990s.”

There was a TV show called Blossom?

giphy (5)

That question aside, what should call our attention is the extremely curious number of petals on the flower.  Monocots most frequently have three or six petals, while dicots most frequently have four or five.  This emoji has eight.

Enter Dryas octopetala, also known as mountain avens.  Dryas is a small evergreen bush native to the Arctic in Europe, Asia, and North America.  As the name might imply, its flowers have eight petals.

giphy (7).gif

Dryas octopetala is a relatively famous plant, and not just because of its octopus-evoking petals.  During the early twentieth century, geologists noticed Dryas pollen in large abundance in certain sediments but not in others.  They interpreted this as evidence of past climate events: when the weather was cold, forests had turned to tundra, and Dryas octapetala had spread widely throughout the open landscape, dusting its pollen everywhere.  Other geological evidence later confirmed the existence of the “Younger Dryas”, “Older Dryas”, and “Oldest Dryas”, three prehistoric cold spells that occurred between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago.

More recently, a team of scientists studied the population genetics of Dryas across a latitudinal gradient in Norway.  Populations in higher, colder latitudes had a lower level of genetic diversity than Dryas populations in lower, warmer latitudes.  This may indicate a loss of diversity as Dryas rapidly moved north after the end of the Younger Dryas, when far northern regions were warming and becoming habitable again.

Dryas octopetala has white, not yellow, petals.  In our defense, Google’s version of the emoji is white, but, you know, who cares what color the flower is.  What matters is that we had this fun science odyssey together.  No one can take this fake diploma conferring a “PhD in Plant Taxonomy and Knowledgeableness” away from us!


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Dryas octopetala.

4. Sheaf of Rice


“A rice crop, growing in the ground before harvesting.”

It’s rice.


emoji 4

Oryza sativa (rice).


Sources & Further Reading:

“Blossom”, “Herb”, “Seedling”, and “Sheaf of Rice.” Emojipedia.org.  Emojipedia Pty Ltd 2017.

Chaw, S.M., Chang, C.C., Chen, H.L., Li, W.H.  2004.  Dating the Monocot-Dicot Divergence and the Origin of Core Eudicots Using Whole Chloroplast Genomes.  Journal of Molecular Evolution 58: 424-441.

Vik, U., Jørgensen, M.H., Kauserud, H., Nordal, I., Brysting, A.K.  2010.  Microsatellite markers show decreasing diversity but unchanged level of clonality in Dryas octopetala (Rosaceae) with increasing latitude. American Journal of Botany 97.6: 988-997.

Note: I am not a taxonomist.  If you dispute one of my classifications, or if you’ve identified more plant emojis in the wild, email planthumorist@gmail.com.  I’ll post your analysis on Plant Humor and give you credit!

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