Acaulescent is the word used to describe plants with no visible stem. [It is pronounced a-kaw-LE-sent.]
Most plants have one or more central stems that support the aboveground portion of the plant. These plants are called caulescent. Acaulescent plants do not appear to have stems. Instead, these plants tend to grow their leaves close to the ground in a clustered, rosette, or whorled pattern, common of many succulents. Some acaulescent plants can get quite tall, but these are generally still leaves growing out of the ground. Now, don’t be fooled. Acaulescent plants still have a stem, it’s just extremely short and the internodes (the spaces between nodes) are densely contracted.
How acaulescent plants grow
You may be thinking that many succulents have long stems that support flowers, and you would be right. Those inflorescence axis stems are called peduncles. Unlike a trunk or central stem, these growths are purely reproductive and not structural. Many acaulescent plants have modified underground stems, such as rhizomes, bulbs, or tubers. Instead of sending up a central stem, acaulescent plants put leaves out from the crown. Some of these leaves are thick and mucilaginous, as with succulents, while others are the familiar broad leaves of many tropical plants. The stems you do see attaching the leaves to the crown are actually part of the leaf. These leaf stems are called petioles.
Examples of acaulescent plants
Aloe, agave, and yucca are popular acaulescent plants. Most bulbs, including onion, garlic, chives, and crocus, are acaulescent. The aboveground growths you see in these plants are specialized leaves called scapes. Dandelions, carrots, pineapple, cilantro, lettuce, spinach, and California poppies are also acaulescent. In each case, leaves emerge from a ground level base. Some species of cycad, primrose, oxalis (Oxalis triangularis), and palm (Attalea cuatrecasana) are also acaulescent.
Why should you care?
Knowing that a plant is or is not acaulescent will not change the way you care for it or harvest it. What this information will help you do is to identify those mystery plants that keep turning up in your garden or foodscape.
Knowing words such as acaulescent makes you sound pretty smart, too!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!