Lyrical

The naming of plants is a curious business. When I first studied botany it was explained to me that it would be necessary to learn binomial nomenclature because the common names given to plants could be notoriously confusing. A plant could go by one name in one part of its range and be called by a different name elsewhere in its range. Ah, but the true scientific names are universally applied and—so it was explained to me—those names don’t change.

But they do. In fact, over the past few years there have been wholesale changes to the botanical names of a great number of native plants. But that’s not what I’m blogging about today. Today I want to address some common names of plants.

Some common names employ the modifier, “false.” For example, the prairie wildflower that I prefer to call obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana)—for the compliant nature of its corollas, which may be turned as if on a swivel to point in one or another direction—also has been known as false dragonhead. Long ago, one of my teachers shared his disdain for the “false” modifier, stating that each plant is an organism worthy unto itself, deserving of its own identity and not to be relegated to the status of a false or inferior shadow of some other plant species.

 True obedient plant or false dragonhead? ( Physostegia virginiana )

True obedient plant or false dragonhead? (Physostegia virginiana)

Similarly, feathery false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum recemosum) and starry false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum) were so named because of the resemblance of their foliage to that of the “true” Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum canaliculatum). I prefer to call them feathery Solomon’s plume and starry Solomon’s plume. “Feathery” because of the appearance of the terminal inflorescence, the raceme at the end of the growing stem; “starry” because of the star-like aspect of the widely spaced individual flowers and the star-shaped pattern that appears on the ripening fruits.

Other common names also correlate to their botanical names. Pale spiked Lobelia is Lobelia spicata. A more arcane example would be silky wild rye (Elymus villosus), whose delightfully soft, silken hairs adorn the surface of each leaf blade. (Botanists refer to a surface covered with long, straight, soft hairs as “villous.”)

Sometimes I wish that more common names reflected the botanical nomenclature. Take for example the rustic name of poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata). Given the specific epithet, wouldn’t it be better to call it the exalted milkweed? For that matter, what about swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)? We could call it milkweed incarnate.

 exalted milkweed? ( Asclepias exaltata )

exalted milkweed? (Asclepias exaltata)

 millkweed incarnate? ( Asclepias incarnata )

millkweed incarnate? (Asclepias incarnata)

Locally, two species of Impatiens grace our moist-soil habitats. Spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) also goes by the name of orange jewelweed and occurs in a wide variety of moist habitats, from full sun to partial shade. Pale touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida) also may be called yellow jewelweed and is more likely to found in wet woodland pockets. I prefer to call them jewelweeds because “touch-me-not” strikes me as a bit off-putting, although the name derives from the plants’ seed-dispersal strategy:  ripe seedpods are spring-loaded and the slightest touch will cause the pod to burst open with ballistic force, hurtling the seeds some distance from the parent plant. In fact, the name of the genus, Impatiens, derives from the Latin for “impatient,” referring to the sudden bursting of the ripe seed capsules.

The plant sometimes known as green-headed coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) is not in the same genus as the gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), which is also known as the yellow coneflower. Neither share the same genus as the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida). But back to Rudbeckia laciniata, which is in the same genus as black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba); rather than the somewhat pedestrian name of green-headed coneflower, I much prefer the more lyrical appellation, wild golden glow. Now that’s an evocative plant name, and one befitting the majesty of this streamside species.

I will humbly defer to my betters when it comes to scientific names, but when more than one common name might be applied to a given local species, I am inclined to select the more lyrical or evocative appellation. As Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote, “For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.”