Monday, March 25, 2013

Botany Rules 1: Writing Plant Common Names and English Names

August wildflowers, Victoria, Australia
August wildflowers, Victoria, Australia
    We have a variety of conventions for writing about plants that aren’t particularly obvious, probably because they lie at the intersection of science, language rules and everyday speech. These frequently mystify and frustrate people who otherwise love plants. I am planning posts that explain the rules as I know them.  This one is about writing plant names.

   Most plants have several names--minimally an English common name and a scientific name, but possibly several common names in each of several languages. Thus, the same plant is called: dandelion (English common name), Taraxacum officinale (scientific name)  dent-de-lion, (French common name), achicoria silvestre (Spanish common name) and maskros (Swedish common name). Of course it also has a Dutch, Flemish, German, Italian--you get the picture--
common name as well. In addition, many languages have more than one common name for dandelions, plant books in English might mention blowball, cankerwort, wild endive and piss-i-beds, in Spanish amargon, diente de leon, and taraxacon. I’d say all of those are the plant’s real name:  if, when you use a name, the person to whom you are speaking recognizes it, then that’s the whole point.

Rules for writing common names: modern English doesn’t capitalize common names of plants (or animals, tho bird specialists sometimes do capitalize bird common names).  The plant common name has to conform to the rules of English, however, so if there’s a proper noun in the common name, it must be capitalized. 

Thus, we have rigid goldenrod but Missouri goldenrod, azure penstemon but Torrey’s penstemon and California penstemon. Likewise, the rules for sentences apply: capitalize the common name at the beginning of a sentence or in a title.

purple poppy mallow
purple poppy mallow (in a yard)
    If you are reading something quite old, the author may have capitalized plant common names. In my library are flower books by Edith Clements, wife of the famous ecologist Frederick Clements. Between 1914 and 1926 she published a series of wild flower books. In “Flowers of Mountain and Plain,” a very pretty collection of the showy wildflowers of Colorado and adjacent regions, she capitalized the common names. For example, she wrote “The crimson blossoms of the Poppy Mallow are abundant on prairies and plains at 3000-6000 ft.” (p. 11) More recent works like Schofield and Freeman (1991) write “Purple poppy mallow is an attractive, spreading perennial herb...” (p. 105). Common names are not capitalized today. 

Rules for writing scientific names:  scientific names are considered to be in Latin. In English text, foreign words are italicized. Thus, scientific names are italicized. Consequently I write “I have Rosa alba, Iris germanica, and Taraxacum officinale in my garden.”  This rule applies to words from any language, not just Latin, when they occur in English writing: properly we write pohuehue (Hawaiian), dent-de-lion (French), buenos dias (Spanish), or bu yao (Chinese).

Lithospermum caroliniense, puccoon
Lithospermum caroliniense, puccoon
     The italics can be helpful in telling you which is the scientific name: Puccoon (Lithospermum) is a beautiful plant of the prairie, flowering in late May.

    The Lincoln, Nebraska, newspaper didn’t italicize scientific names. I gave them a call and told them they should. They replied something like “it isn’t in our rules.”  So apparently there are subsets of English where standard practice doesn't apply. 

    Scientific names are binomial, having two parts, genus and species, in that order. Genus is always capitalized, species never is. I’ll say more about that another time. Let me finish about italics on scientific names and capitals on common names.

asters, genus Aster
more asters, genus Aster
    Many plants do not have common names. When talking about them, people often use the scientific name, and soon the scientific name is turned into a common name. Why is it a common name and no longer a scientific name?  Because Latin doesn’t make plurals by adding s. So if I say “see those asters,” its not the scientific name Aster any more. When we’ve turned the scientific name into an English word, English name rules apply:  no capital, add s as needed. The common name of Penstemon is beardtongue, but nurseries make penstemon a common name when they offer many penstemons for sale. Other plants where the common name is an English version of the scientific name that leap to mind are weigela, jacaranda, wisteria and acacia. Native examples would be bigflower coreopsis which is Coreopsis grandiflora, palespike lobelia, Lobelia spikata, and Dakota verbena, Verbena bipinnata.

false kamani, Terminalia catappa
false kamani, Terminalia catappa
note red leaves
    In the previous post I got tangled between English and foreign words. I was trying to handle Hawaiian common names exactly right, putting them in italics. Then I came to tropical almond. In Hawaii, the common name is usually given as false kamani.  Kamani is Hawaiian, but false isn’t, so that has to be an English common name incorporating the Hawaiian name. The other Hawaiian names for false kamani, kamani haole and kamani ula are clearly in Hawaiian. Haole means foreign, so kamani haole is foreign kamani, the true kamani being Calophyllum inophyllum, a tree sacred to the Polynesians, who brought it to Hawaii. Terminalia catalpa is native to India and known in English as Alexandrian laurel and oil nut tree, but also beautyleaf, Borneo mahogany, beach mahogany, and poon. Kamani is in a plant family named after it, Calophyllaceae, and is not closely related to false kamani, which is in quite a different family, the Combretaceae. Ula can mean flaming or red, so presumably kamani ula refers to the fact that the leaves of false kamani turn red when they fall. 

   Another now-obscure tradition for writing scientific names was underlining. Before personal computers, most botanists worked with pens or at typewriters. Italics is difficult handwritten and not available on typewriters. However, the printer’s mark telling the typesetter (in old book printing) to put something in italics was to underline it. Underlining meant: "set in italics." Consequently, scientific names were underlined wherever italics was unavailable. When the word processor arrived on our desks, we quickly converted to directly italicizing the scientific names. Today you rarely see the underlining. Yet for at least 300 years, except when the book was finally printed, underlining scientific names was the norm.

References consulted

Clements, E. S. 1926.Flowers of mountain and plain. 3rd ed. H. W. Wilson, New York.

Freeman, C.C. and E. K. Schofield. 1991. Roadside wildflowers of the southern Great Plains. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence.

Hargreaves, D. and B. 1964. Tropical trees of Hawaii. Hargreaves Company, Inc., Honolulu.

Holm, L. J. Doll, E. Holm, J. Pancho and J. Herberger. 1997. World weeds: natural histories and distribution. John Wiley & Sons, New York. 

Little, E. L. Jr. and R. G. Skolmen. 1989. Agricultural Handbook no. 679, Hawaiian forestry and agroforestry trees.  Online 2003.

Lust, J. 1983. The herb book. Bantam Books, NY

Merlin, M. D. 1977. Hawaiian forest plants. Oriental Publishing Company, Honolulu.

Vickery, R. 1995. Oxford dictionary of plant-lore. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
cosmos also known as Cosmos

Kathy Keeler
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  1. Wonderful information, let me tell you, your website gives the best and the most interesting information. This is just the kind of information that i had been looking for, Thanks a ton once again, Regards, muslim baby names

  2. Thank you so much for your clear explanation. I've been getting tripped up with plant names and whether to capitalize it or not. This has helped a lot.

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  4. Thanks Kathleen so much for caring about us, poor non-English native amateur botanists! This post have been super useful and fun!