Word of the Week: Lanceolate

lanceolate [ lan(t)-see-uh-late ] adjective: lance-shaped; specifically in the case of leaves, longer than wide, tapering to a point at the apex and possibly to the base, wider below the middle; sometimes widest at the base

illustration showing the shape of a lanceolate leafIt would be fair to wonder why we even add the word lanceolate to our glossary, it seems so self-explanatory – shaped like a lance. Yet there are nuances, and leaves described as lanceolate turn out not to be shaped exactly like that in all cases. The term is used in botany primarily to describe leaf shape in a way that helps us identify a plant or at least separate one species or variety from another. For example, the Flora of Virginia includes not only the “widest point below the middle” language in its definition of lanceolate, but also this phrase: “narrower than ovate,” helping us to envision a narrow leaf that comes to a sharp point. Ovate leaves tend to be widest at the bottom. Obovate are widest at the top. Yet if we read through all the detail in many plant descriptions, it turns out that a species’ leaves can vary somewhat in form even on a given plant or at different life stages. Another factor is that not everyone names the plants with the same eye. Lysimachia lanceolata (lance-leaved loosestrife or yellow garden loosestrife), for example, carries the epithet lanceolate, and does indeed have  sharply pointed, flat leaves; someone saw them as lance-shaped when it was named, yet it has also been described simply as narrow or linear leaved.

Native Plants with Lanceolate Leaves*

Vernonia noveboracensis (New York ironweed) is common in our gardens, a late-summer shot of bright purple attracting lots of pollinators, and its leaves are indeed sharp as lances. Coreopsis lanceolata (lanceleaf or long-stalk coreopsis) is one of several varieties of tickseed that grow in our region. The epithet of this variety helps us distinguish it from Coreopsis verticillata (whorled or thread-leaf coreopsis), with its finer, feathery leaves that seem to spiral around the stems. Trees with leaves described variously as  lanceolate, linear, lance-linear, and oblong-lanceolate are Quercus phellos (willow oak), Salix nigra (black willow), and Fraxinus pennsylvanica (green ash).

*Caption leaf descriptions from Flora of Virginia


Weakley AS, Ludwig JC, Townsend JF. 2012. Flora of Virginia. Botanical Research Institute of Texas. pages 310, 407, 618, 742, 824, 919, 1385.

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