Thursday, March 10, 2016

What’s In A Name? Why Scientific Names Aren’t SO Scary by Melissa Baynes

When in the garden, most people I talk with will blanch when I refer to a plant by its botanical name.  They may then laugh and ask, but what is its NAME, I just want to know its NAME. But, when I say… “well, it’s a daisy”, what image does that invoke and is it really that helpful?  “Daisy” doesn’t tell us what color it is, whether it has milky sap or not, if the leaves are hairy or smooth or any other distinguishing feature it may possess.  In fact, it doesn’t tell us much more than it probably has ray and disc flowers, which encompasses literally thousands of plants in the world.

This is why I love botanical nomenclature and argue the case for using scientific names whenever I get the chance.  Scientific nomenclature may seem daunting at first but once you get the hang of it, it’s not so bad, really!  And, with a little practice, the six, eight or ten syllable words will just start to roll off your tongue.

In the 1700s, Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus developed a binomial system of nomenclature in order to group plants according to similar characteristics.  And, with use of both a genus and species name to describe a plant, each type of plant gets assigned a completely unique botanical name.  Scientific names are often derived from Latin and recognizing some of the derivative words and prefixes can really be helpful with the identification of plants.  And, what is really great is that some of these words you already know or can make a pretty good educated guess at!

Botanical names often are descriptive and can give a clue to the plant’s specialized morphological features (e.g., color, spots, texture or shape).   For example, part of the name may describe the color of the plant or flower:
rubescens:       reddish
purpurea:        purplish
glaucous:         blue-gray
niger:              black

Or, the name may describe the shape, size or look of a flower:
grandiflora:     large flowered
parviflorum:    small flowered
glomeratus:    clustered
speciosus:       showy
umbellatum:   umbrella-shaped

Maybe you are unsure of how many leaflets a plant has or what shape the leaves are… never fear, the scientific name can help solve the mystery:
tridentata:      3-toothed
hirsute:           hairy, rough
glabrous:         smooth
angustifolia:    narrow
sagittata:        arrow-shaped
lanceolatus:    lance-shaped
lineatus:          striped, lined

In some instances, names may also honor a person (not so helpful for identification purposes, I will admit) or the plant’s native distribution, habit or other interesting or unique characteristics.

pratensis:        growing in meadows
tectorum:        thatched roofs
coloradensis:   from Colorado
montana:        mountains
annuus:           annual
toxi:                poison
lacteus:           milky
contorta:         twisted

So, with all of that said, here are just a few of my Colorado favorites that you may have planted in your garden or may find growing along that hiking trail of yours in the spring.     See if the scientific names make sense to you …

Rocky Mountain Columbine (Aquilegia coerulea)

The genus, Aquilegia, comes from the Latin word aquila, which means "eagle", referencing the shape of the petals, which are said to be like an eagle's claw.  You can see it, right?  And, of course, the species name, coerulea, describes the flower color perfectly… “sky-blue”.

Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia)

This beautiful native flower’s genus is Campanula, which… you guessed it, in Latin means “small bell” and describes its distinct bell-shaped flowers.  And, although the stem leaves are narrow and grass like, the basal leaves are rounded, hence the species name, rotundifolia, which literally means “round leaves”. 

Bearberry, Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

This creeping evergreen shrub produces distinct berry-like fruits (drupes) that ripen and turn red in the late summer/ fall.  Birds, small mammals and bears enjoy these fruits.  The genus, Arctostaphylos comes from two words – arctos “bear” and staphylos “grapes”.  The species name, uva-ursi literally means “bear’s grape”.  So, when looking at this plant, you might think… those sure look like little grapes, I bet bears might like to eat those! See how the scientific name ties right in … how can you not love that?!

Common Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
Another shrub with showy fruit is the common snowberry, which can be found growing up to 8,500’.  You can’t miss the distinct white berries that mature in the fall and persist through the winter.  Fittingly, the genus for this plant, Symphoricarpos, means “clustered fruits” or “bunched berries”.  And, the species name, albus, refers to the color of the fruit… white.  So easy, right?

 Spreadfruit Golden Banner (Thermopsis divaricarpa) 

Spreadfruit golden banner is commonly seen blooming early in the season.  When it goes to fruit, you’ll notice that it develops pods that look very much like those on a lupine plant.  Hence, the genus name Thermopsis refers to lupine (thermo = lupine, opsis = like).   The aptly-named species name divaricarpa means spreading fruit (divari = wide-spreading and carpa = fruit).

Beardtongue, Scarlet Bugler, Firecracker Penstemon
(Penstemon barbatus)

This plant boasts stalks of brilliant red flowers that hummingbirds love.  Each flower has five stamens (although the fifth is sterile), giving rise to its genus, Penstemon (pente = five, stamon = thread).  Latin for “hairy” or “bearded” is barbatus, which refers to the tuft of small hairs inside of the floral tube.  Just another perfectly named plant!

See how wonderful it can be?  So, I challenge you… embrace your inner scientist, impress your friends, and give botanical nomenclature a chance!

Gledhill, David.  The Names of Plants. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Stearn, William, T. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners: A Handbook on the Origin and Meaning of the Botanical Names of Some Cultivated Plants. Portland, OR: Timber, 2002.

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