Wednesday, March 23, 2011
LATIN NAMES FOR PLANTS
I remember how bored I was in Latin class, gazing out the window at birds chirping in the trees. I’d been persuaded that Latin would come in handy for its own sake but also as the basis for lovelier languages. True on both counts, but sing-songy grammatical drills and readings from pompous elders of the Roman Republic seemed awfully irrelevant at the time. Biology class was much the same in those days: studying life sciences meant rote-learning of taxonomic terms and performing ghastly dissections. I didn’t see a connection between either of the subjects and the real world that called to me from outside that window.
But life has a funny way of creating connections, of tapping all our experiences and yearnings to assemble the creatures we eventually become. I thought I’d left those rigid disciplines behind when I joined the National Park Service but failed to consider how interpreting the natural world would bring me face to face with my old adversaries: Latin and Life Sciences.
I resisted them at first, preferring folklore to facts and stubbornly refusing to learn the Latin names of plants. Of course, this couldn’t last. Simple curiosity and the urge to do my job properly soon had me reading books and magazine articles about scientific discoveries and learning Latin names.
A world of wonders unfolded! Scientists now have the most remarkable tools to observe the infinite forms and behaviors with which life expresses itself, and they describe much of what they learn using the Latin vocabulary. There are so many stories in those clickety-clack names as well as puns, tributes, geography lessons, pharmacological tips, rapturous descriptions, and most of all, connections.
People everywhere have always given interesting “common” names to local plants they use for medicine, food, and ceremonies. In western culture, it was Greek philosophers who began to organize the known world systematically. Romans adapted Greek names into Latin forms that persisted in medieval texts about herbal remedies. During the Age of Exploration, scholars continued to use Latin in their efforts to organize the flood of unfamiliar plants and animals brought back to Europe.
In 1757 the Swedish physician Carl Linnaeus conceived the system still in usetoday. Linnaeus’ father was first in his family to adopt a last name, Latinizing a word from his local dialect for a giant linden tree on his land. Carl used Latin names to classify plants and animals according to what he thought were family
resemblances. (With the advent of DNA analysis, science is now in the process of revising the Latin names of plants using genetics instead of flower shapes.) For instance, Linnaeus placed milkweeds — a group of plants with similar flowers and potent chemistry — into the family Asclepiadaceae, a Latinized name for Aesculpius, the Greek god of medicine.
Linnaeus further divided families into groups called genera (think “generic”), based on even closer similarities in flower anatomy. He modified each genus name with a species (“specific”) name to distinguish between closely-related plants, resulting in our binomial system of paired names such as Valeriana arizonica. Valeriana is from valere which means “health” in Latin, for the plant’s tranquilizing properties later synthesized as Valium. The species name arizonica means “of Arizona” because this sweet little pale pink shade lover is a local native.
“All rootedness is learning to call things by their right name,” Confucius. Instead of spending six years majoring in Greek and Latin, it’s much easier now to discover the meaning and derivations of plant names in The Names of Plants by David Gledhill and websites such as Calflora.net/botanicalnames/.
Try it yourself! Look up Calochortus nuttalli, the Latin binomial for sego lily. You will learn that the genus of this member of Liliaceae — the Lily Family — means “beautiful grass” (a description of its leaves) and that it was named for the
English botanist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859), who ventured into the wild American West to collect plants. Voyageurs who accompanied Nuttall described him as “some whimsical kind of madman” who used his rifle to dig up plants and store seeds. You’ll never see a sego lily the same way again.
Susan Lamb is a local writer and naturalist (www.susanlamb.net). Dana Prom Smith is the coordinating editor of Gardening Etcetera. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.