4

Oxford definitions for them:

stalk:

1 The main stem of a herbaceous plant.
‘he chewed a stalk of grass’
1.1 The slender attachment or support of a leaf, flower, or fruit.
‘the acorns grow on stalks’

stem:

The main body or stalk of a plant or shrub, typically rising above ground but occasionally subterranean.
1.1 The stalk supporting a fruit, flower, or leaf, and attaching it to a larger branch, twig, or stalk.

  • 1
    Hmm. If there is much of a difference, it's probably a technical term in botany... Intuitively I'd say that only leaves, flowers, and fruits have stems, as the definition says. Whereas you can have a stalk of asparagus, a stalk of grass, etc. (the whole plant can be the stalk). – Luke Sawczak Jul 14 '17 at 20:28
  • "Stalk" is only used with certain plants (e.g. corn), but aside from that, I don't think there is a difference. Also, you would chew on a blade of grass. You can chew on a stalk of hay though. – Andrew Jul 14 '17 at 20:28
  • Eh, grass comes in stalks too, though I agree "blade" is more common. You can also talk about dandelion stalks or stems. I feel like "stalk" might be the more general one. – Luke Sawczak Jul 14 '17 at 20:30
  • 3
    A stalk usually grows out of the ground; a stem often has a stalk as its foundation. A stalk can bear stems, but the obverse is not true. – P. E. Dant Jul 14 '17 at 22:05
  • This is not a full answer, but in figurative contexts, "stalk" is almost never used it is almost always "stem" e.g. "You can conjugate the verb by adding different endings to the same stem." – Katrina Brock Jul 14 '17 at 22:44
5

The venerable OED (as well as your reference) uses each term in the other's definition, but they aren't really interchangeable.

For stalk:

The main stem of a herbaceous plant, bearing the flowers and leaves; also, a scape or flower-stem rising directly from the root.

For stem:

The main body (usually more or less cylindrical) of the portion above ground of a tree, shrub, or other plant; a trunk, stock, stalk. (Ordinarily implying a greater degree of slenderness than stock or trunk.)

Botanists and arborists will usually use stem to refer to a slender portion of the plant, while stalk refers to something more substantial, often the main upright "load-bearing" portion of a plant's body. A stalk can bear several stems, but a stem cannot bear a stalk.

In her blog called BotanicalAccuracy.com, Dr. Lena Struwe uses rhubarb to bring into sharp relief the distinction between stem and stalk. Dr. Struwe does such a good job of it that rather than paraphrase it, I reproduce it here against the possibility that her blog may disappear one day.

The inaccuracy that often is perpetuated with rhubarb is what we properly call the part of the plant we eat. The 'stalks' we eat are the edible part of the otherwise toxic plant, and they are the leaf stalks. The botanical, scientific name for this in English is 'petiole'. This photo shows clearly how each stalk is connected to each leaf.

enter image description here

The problem is that many times people inaccurately call them rhubarb 'stems'. A 'stem' is a part of the plant that is a central shoot that holds the leaves, branches, flowers, and so on. The true rhubarb stem is a hollow, nearly bamboo-like cylinder, which leads up to a terminal shoot that eventually develops flower buds. A 'stalk', on the other hand, can be both leaf stalk and the stem of a plant. Here is a photo of a rhubarb stem with flowers and small leaves:

enter image description here

I have taken the liberty of correcting a few disagreements in number, and adding a few changes for clarity in Dr. Struwe's text. She is after all a botanist, and not merely a harmless drudge.

0

In terms of the definition, there is little difference. As your example shows, one is used in the definition of the other. However, in practical use (in US English at least) there is a difference in the size or substance of the item being referred to. So, I would normally refer to "a corn stalk" but would never refer to a "flower stalk". The corn stalk is thicker than a flower stem. A stem is usually delicate and/or weak, while a stalk is thick and strong.

  • Hm. So one would say "beanstem" instead of "beanstalk"? I am not totally convinced. – Stephie Jul 14 '17 at 21:17
  • Well, we are talking about English here. When is anything 100% consistent? That said, I stand by my answer. – Joe Friend Jul 14 '17 at 21:21
  • @Stephie - Ironically, thanks to the fairy tale, I usually image beanstalks to be even bigger and sturdier than cornstalks – big enough to climb on. – J.R. Jul 14 '17 at 21:58
  • @P.E.Dant ugh! Made changes and didn't catch that. Thanks – Joe Friend Jul 15 '17 at 4:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.