Certain plant families generally have a specific number of nominal petals, be it 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 or 12. But just like the 3-leaved clovers can sometimes have 4 leaves, flowers too can have variable number of petals. Thus nominally 6-petalled flowers can sometimes have 5 or 7 or 8, maybe even 9 petals. The Stonecrop Family perhaps exhibits the family with the greatest variation, with some members having 4, 5, 6, 7 or 12 nominal petals, but most Stonecrops have but 5 petals.

There are some flowers without petals. For example, those belonging to the Pondweed Family, which have no petals but 4 cupped green sepals, which look like petals, but are not. Plants like these are being categorised as if they have petals, however many it may seem. Sea Buckthorn has tiny petal-less green flowers. There are other plants lacking flowers, for example Ferns.

These flowers may have the appearance of having only one petal, but looked at closely enough, it may have an opening which is slightly cut, such as the five triangular teetch at the end of the bell of Cowberry, or it may have a curving 'snout' as in Common Broomrape which has one lip at the opening. It may otherwise have a curving, slightly twisted cowl, like tat of Lords and Ladies, which is not a petal at all, but the plants overall appearance is that of having one 'petal'.

The aquatic Cape Pondweed seems to be highly unusual in having but two petals. There are extremely few flowers with only two petals arranged openly at 180 degrees.

The aquatic Bladderworts have but two-lipped flowers.

There are also a great many flowers belonging to the mint family which have vertically symmetric two-lipped flowers, flowers such as Red Dead-nettle. Also many saprophytes such as Red Bartsia and orchids have two vertically-symmetric lips.

It seems that many plants with three petals (but not all) are aquatic. Furthermore no plant that is not aquatic has three petals. Among those aquatic plants that are three-petalled are Flowering-rush, the Water-plantains, the Frogbit Family, the Waterweed Family, and of course Yellow Iris has three very large petals.

A major exception are flowers of the Pondweed Family, which have no petals but 4 cupped green sepals, which look like petals, and New Zealand Pigmyweed which anomalously has 4 petals and yet belongs to the Stonecrop Family which usually have 5 petals but some stonecrops have 6 or 7 petals petals.

The aquatic Bladderworts have but two-lipped flowers.

The aquatic Cape Pondweed seems to be highly unusual in having but two petals. There are extremely few flowers with only two petals arranged openly at 180 degrees.

Marsh Cinquefoil, which likes a watery habitat, also has 3 petals (intersected by 3 bracts).


It is entirely possible that the three-petalled aquatic flowers represent and are derived from a much earlier epoch of the Earths history when conditions were anoxic (without oxygen). Slowly these plants have evolved to tolerate or even thrive with the upper parts and leaves in an atmosphere containing oxygen, but whose roots still need to exclude oxygen. (Oxygen is removed from muddy organic sediments by other organisms). Ordinary soil does contain some oxygen. Most plants need to have at least some air getting to the roots, and dislike being water-logged. Not so with aquatic plants which positively thrive with roots in oxygen-free conditions.


Five is a rather strange number. It could be argued that pentagons have less symmetry than do squares, hexagons and octagons. Pentagonal symmetry does not occur readily in the natural world; for many hundreds of years it was thought impossible that any mineral crystal would be found with pentagonal symmetry, simply because unlike triangles, squares and hexagons they do not pack together in an orderly manner. But a few minerals are now known with pentagonal symmetry. They are very rare, and they possess a random structure rather than being in a regular repetitive array. Not so with petals however; possessing five is a very popular number, for they do not need to pack together orderly.

But some with five petals do have one peculiar property. Many flowers (but not all) with five petals have asymmetrically shaped petals, rather like propeller blades where the leading edge is of a different shape to the trailing edge. The Periwinkle Family are such flowers, another is some members of the Mallow Family. Soapwort and Bouncing Bett also exhibit this property which seems to be peculiarly restricted to those having 5 petals at 72 degree intervals around a circle. However, not all those which have five petals separated at 72 degrees have this asymmetric characteristic. Some are totally symmetric.

Of those that are totally and rotationally symmetric at 72 degrees (1/5 of a circle), members of the Rose, Borage, Bellflower, Flax, Wood-Sorrel, Cranesbill, Buttercup, Pink & Carnation, Saxifrage, Primrose, Rock-Rose, Nightshade, Thrift, Wintergreen, and St. John's Wort Families are prominent. Plus some, but not all, members of the Stonecrop, Figwort and Gentian Families. Members of the Bindweed Family, although having only a single trumpet-shaped flower, have 5-fold symmetry markings on the flowers. Minor Families with five petals are the Bogbean, Jacob's Ladder and Verbena Families, with the Mulleins.

But there are some with five petals, although symmetrical about a centre line, are not rotationally symmetric. The Violet, Bladderwort and Balsam Families. Some members of the Dead-Nettle Family appears to be 5-petalled but some are joined and reminiscent of orchids. Toadflaxes, Valerians and Monkey Flowers also appear to have 5 petals, but symmetric about a centre line.






Houseleek is the only member of the Stonecrop Family to have 12 petals; most Stonecrops have but 5.


If the petals are deeply cleft, to over half-way, then the flower can appear to have twice as many petals than what it does. In Ragged Robin the petals are cleft once, then once again to a slightly shallower depth, giving the appearance of four times as many petals.

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