|Saskatoon berries, or you might know them as...|
To entertain with the stories I love, I have to identify the plant. That is what names are for--communication. Why is it so difficult to have widely recognized plant names?
We all appreciate that if we're speaking different languages, the names will differ. Strawberry is Erdbeere in German, jordgrubbar in Swedish and fresa in Spanish. Scientific names were created to deal with the multitude of European languages: the scientific name is an international name, created to facilitate communication.
In traditional Europe, where people rarely traveled far, common names were created independently all across the countryside. Folklorists have gathered many colorful names for the same plant, for example houseleeks were also called Thor's beard and hens-and-chickens (link to post) and plantains (Plantago) had even more names (link). I imagine that if you know the plant--meaning that you can recognize it whether it has flowers or seeds, is growing lushly or is dry and dying--it isn't much of a problem to fit a couple of alternate names into that body of knowledge.
|Houseleek, aka Thor's beard, hens-and-chickens, syngreen...|
What is it I am complaining about? Confusion caused by multiple common names.
Scientists will nod, "Yes, yes, that's why we created scientific names." And I agree on the value of scientific names in science. But when I speak or write as a popular science speaker/writer, I want to be accessible, which means using English names used by American speakers.
Which leads to my wail: do we have to have so many competing common names? Today, I mean, not in 16th century England.
|Here's the plant (Artemisia ludoviciana): what do you call it?|
This kind of mess is preventable: the people publishing the plant identification works and the plant lists, online and in print, should take a deep breath and pick widely used common names.
But as soon as I get to plants that I'm not sure everyone reading my words knows, it gets tricky to choose a common name. Since people may not know the plant well, having several names creates confusion that I think is unnecessary.
And it can result in the same common name for different plants. White sage in Colorado means Artemisia ludoviciana, but in California it is Salvia apiana. California's white sage is related to culinary sage (mint family, Lamiaceae). It was sacred to several tribes in California and is now highly regarded for making "smudge" incense (link, link). It grows wild only in California (see map). People who gather wild white sage anywhere else in the United States are gathering something else, likely Artemisia ludoviciana. Artemisia ludoviciana makes a decent sagy incense, but it is biologically and chemically quite different from Salvia apiana.
|bodark, monkey balls, hedge apple, Osage orange...|
While I'm wishing, I'd like the common names not to confuse plant relationships, as is the case for the European plant called spurge laurel which is neither a spurge nor a laurel (link).
I'm planning a series of posts on these problems, to draw attention to them. In that way, if you have in the past encountered some common name ambiguity you'll recognize it: "Oh! I got tangled up on that too!" And, to warn about the pitfalls out there, so that a google search might hit my post and "disambiguify" some of the confusions. (Google's disambiguations are very helpful.) I traced "white sage" through a lot of websites before I figured out that there were two plants called white sage. Other people shouldn't have to spend that time too.
My practical advice for now is to look up a scientific name for the plant of interest and be sure that the website or book you are using is referring to the same plant. (Is the hemlock Conium or Tsuga? link)
Comments and corrections welcome.
Related posts: Writing Scientific and Common Names
Free download: Botany Rules. My blog posts on scientific and common names, in one free download. To receive your copy click here: Botany Rules ebook
Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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Sources: Artemisia ludoviciana in
Flora of North America
- Ackerfield, J. 2015. Flora of Colorado. B. R. I. T. Press, Fort Worth, TX.
USDA Plants website (choose "Show All" to see the distribution of all the subspecies.)
Young, H. 2014. Wildflowers and other plants of the Larimer County foothills region. Larimer County Natural Resources, Colorado.