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A Botanical Epiphany or A Journey into Nomenclature

by Jim Smith

Plants don’t know their own names and it’s a good thing they don’t care as most of them have had their names changed. Even as a boy and later as a forester I dealt with the frustrations of plant nomenclature. Now retired, I am neither forester nor botanist, but living the words Thomas Jefferson wrote to Charles Peale: “Though an old man, I am but a young gardener.” I had thought by now plant classification would have been worked out in great detail, but as a gardener and plant lover, I continue to learn and enjoy the twists and turns of taxonomy.

A local botanical druggist nurtured my youthful interest in native plants. He gave me my first plant book, “American Medicinal Plants of Commercial Importance – Misc. Publication No. 77 of the United States Department of Agriculture.” He also gave me a list of plants that he purchased and their prices that varied by seasons and market demand. His lists always contained the admonition that “all Roots, Barks and Herbs are used for medicine and must be clean.” I quickly classified all plants into two groups: those that could be sold and those that could not.

Among the plants on his list was Indian Turnip (a.k.a. jack-in-the-pulpit) that fetched $0.40 per pound. Being one of the higher-priced items, it received special attention. I learned it had a number of other names such as: bog onion, brown dragon, cuckoo plant, devil’s ear, dragon root, lords and ladies, priest’s pintle, wake robin and memory root. The fresh corms, because of the oxalic crystals in them “…impart an almost caustic sensation to the mucous membrane, and swelling of the parts, when chewed.” This action upon the mouths of schoolboys probably gave rise to the name “memory root”, as they never forget its effects.

A number of other plants on his list had multiple common names. I learned many of them so I could discuss the plants with neighbors and assay the prospects for profit. The Latin names were included in the book I was given, but they meant little to me. A local priest knew Latin but he didn’t know plants and my acquaintances who knew the plants didn’t know Latin. Many of the common names reflected characteristics of the plant.

The mucilaginous inner bark of the slippery elm gave the tree its name. There was a similar logic in the names swamp white oak, weeping willow and others. Less logically, several plants sometimes shared the same name. Yellow root was applied to Berberis vulgaris, Hydrastis canadensis, and Xanthorhiza simplicissima.

My interest in natural history and plants grew but my education in nomenclature was stunted. I continued to use only common names. To use Latin names at that time and in that place would have been considered an effete affectation verging on snobbery. Plant classification, for me, was based on economics and appearance and the plant’s medicinal uses. I read about the systems developed by Theophrastus, Caesalpino and Tournefort, but my classification seemed to be as useful. My education took a leap forward when my grandmother gave me a copy of “Gray’s School and Field Botany, the 1887 edition”. It described the well-known system devised by Carl von Linne who had studied medicine at a time when training in botany was part of the medical curriculum and Latin was the “lingua franca” of the scientific community. In fact, he adopted the latinized version of his name, “Carolus Linnaeus” in his writings. Coincidentally, I learned the basics of Linnaeus’ binomial system of nomenclature at the same time I was studying Latin. He placed great significance on plant reproduction. He also drew parallels between plant sexuality and human love when he wrote in 1729:

“The flowers’ leaves serve as bridal beds which the creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains, and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much the greated solemnity.”

One of his severest critics was botanist Johann Siegesbeck who objected to the sexually explicit nature of his system and defined it as “loathsome harlotry.” Linnaeus had the last word by naming a small useless European weed “Siegesbeckia”.

Illustration of the Plant Kingdom

At about the same time I read Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species” whose theory seemed to confllict with Linnaeus’ idea of the “invariability of the species” and yet even Darwin writing to his friend Joseph Hooker said: “The rapid development as far as we can judge of all the higher plants within recent geological times is an abominable mystery”. Some of the mystery remains and continues to be fodder for the debate between “creationists” and those who subscribe to Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

I went on to study forestry. Already convinced of the considerable confusion in common names, I was a willing convert to the use of scientific names. I was also easily convionced of the logic of phylogenetic classification based on presumed relationships or common origins. My education continues as I acquire a rudimentary understanding of cladistics.

The seminar on plant families that was recently sponsored by BotSoc and the Georgia Native Plant Society was helpful in understanding the directions plant classification is taking. Tom Patrick’s article “A Discussion of the Best Standard for Nomenclature” that appeared in the March 2005 issue of BotSoc was certainly helpful. For many years, I clung to the “Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas” by Radford, Ahles, and Bell as my botanical bible. Even as I embrace my friend Tom Patrick’s advice and seek out the best current standard for nomenclature, I will keep my “bible” handy.

Changing classifications as more is learned seems inevitable, but it would be nice for those of us with failing memories if the currently accepted Latin names could be frozen. In my lifetime, one of my favorite trees has carried the common name of yellowood, but the scientific name has changed from Virgilia lutea to Cladrastis tinctoria to Cladrastis lutea to Cladrastis kentuckea.

After all, nomenclature can be useful without being needlessly complex.

Illustration from Elpel, T.J. 2000. Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families, 4th edition.