Sunday, March 12, 2017

Common Names -- Different Names in Different Places

I've been drawing attention to problems in looking up plants online by their common names. Here is one final issue with common names: they are often regional. That means you can find the same name on a different plant if you are in a different part of the United States. Or not find useful websites because on those websites they use a different common name.

goat's beard, Tragopogon
goatsbeard, Tragopogon
For example, looking at plant books from different regions, I find two goatsbeards, Aruncus dioicus (see photos I don't have one of my own) and Tragopogon spp. (above and photos). Aruncus grows across the eastern US., Canada and along the West Coast (USDA maps, description at Missouri Botanic Garden). Tragopogon grows there too, but eastern U.S. books it is called salsify or oyster plant. Aruncus is not found in the central U.S., and in some plant identification books from here, it is Tragopogon that is called goatsbeard. I believe the name goatsbeard for Tragopogon came with it from Europe (see Culpeper, Grieve). Aruncus is an American species, more recently named goatsbeard, for the way it looks. Currently, the USDA plants website has Tragopogon as goatsbeard and Aruncus as bride's feathers while the Flora of North America calls Aruncus goatsbeard and Tragopogon salsify. No knowing what you'll get if you ask for goatsbeard. 

false salsify, Scorzonera laciniata
false salsify, Scorzonera laciniata
Speaking of salsify (Tragopogon), it has a plant named after it in my region, false salsify (Scorzonera laciniata formerly Podospermum lacinatum). Both Colorado floras (Weber and Wittman and Ackerfield) use that name. It is a member of the daisy family like salsify and easy to confuse with salsify. On the USDA Plants website and in the Flora of North America, however, false salsify's common name is viper grass or cutleaf vipergrass. Since it not a grass (grass family, Poaceae, containing, for example, Kentucky bluegrass), the viper grass common name is quite misleading. But certainly, we can call false salsify a regional (Colorado) common name.  More Scorzonera photos link

Solomon's seal, Polygonatum biflorum
Solomon's seal, Polygonatum biflorum
Solomon's seal, Polygonatum biflorum
Solomon's seal, Polygonatum biflorum
Solomon's seal is another plant with a look-alike and a name that switches regionally. I grew up in upstate New York and eastern Ohio. Solomon's seal, Polygonatum biflorum, was a nodding plant with leaves alternating off each side that bloomed in the early spring. False solomon's seal, Maianthemum racemosum looked very similar (same family asparagus family, Asparagaceae). I learned to separate the two by the way the flowers and fruit were held (hanging below the leaves versus at the tip of the stem, compare the photos). Indeed, foragers traditionally ate false Solomon's seal and considered Solomon's seal poisonous (link(This looks like a carryover from the European Solomon's seal, Polygonatum odoratum, which very definitely had poisonous fruits. Thayer, a careful forager eats the shoots and roots of both Solomon's seal and false Solomon's seal, and the berries of false Solomon's seal.) Here in Colorado, Solomon's seal does not grow, but there are two species of false Solomon's seal, Maianthermum. Not surprisingly, Coloradans tend to drop the "false" since there is nothing in their mountains for it to be a false version of (widlflowers of Colorado website scroll to Maianthemum link). Works in Colorado.

false solomon's seal, Maianthemum racemosum
false solomon's sealMaianthemum racemosum
false solomon's seal, Maianthemum racemosum
false solomon's sealMaianthemum racemosum with developing fruit
But how very confusing across the continent--you get two contrasting common names for Maianthemum or the same common name for Polygonatum and Maianthemum...a paradox for plant identifiers surely. 

In the past, you'd look names up in a book with a regional focus. Generally regional names agree so you'd rarely be confused and the plant in question would undoubtedly be included in the book. With the internet you can quickly cut across huge distances. It is easy to google a common name but not always easy to determine where the author of page you find is located. You need to know where the helpful writer is, because the plant you are trying to figure out might not grow in the area he or she covers or it might be known by a quite different name there.  

Here's a example. Working on a Colorado mountain plant you think is a columbine (above) you go to a website with a helpful name and friendly approach (I'll try Identify That Plant link) and look for your flower. Use the Search function and find columbine. But that gets you a photo of this plant link, the red columbine. The description doesn't suggest they are ever any other color. What do you decide? That your plant isn't a columbine? If you thought it was a Colorado website, you might think that.

Columbines have a rather distinctive shape, so in fact you might make the right conclusion: the blue flower is a columbine but not the one in the picture. Identify That Plant is in North Carolina, but you have to click on About to learn that. And then you need to be knowledgeable enough to wonder how different the plants of Colorado are from those of North Carolina. Quite different, actually.

Most people don't realize that we have some 17,00 different native plant species in the continental United States. We underestimate diversity partly because we plant the same cultivated plants (daffodils, lilacs, roses, marigolds, geraniums) and a few highly successful weeds are widespread, dandelions, crabgrass, plantains, purslane, lamb's quarters, and sunflowers for example. Since these two groups of plants are visible in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles, it gives the illusion that it doesn't matter where you are, the same plants will be there. That is very much an illusion. Even my list isn't likely to really work: people in each of those cities will have to hunt for one or more of the "ubiquitous" plants I listed. 

Today we can quickly compare the names given by the Flora of North America, the USDA Plants Website, and university and individual websites from all across the continent. Often the common names differ. Which can lead you very far astray or waste lots of time.

I can offer two suggestions. If you are writing online anything that mentions a plant, give its scientific name and your location. There are two plants called white sage, three bergamots, two hemlocks, two goatsbeards, while false salsify is also called viper grass, Osage orange is also bodark, and serviceberries, June berries and saskatoons are the same plant. The scientific name will make it clear which plant you are writing about. Your location will help people interpret your observations.

wild bergamot, Monarda
wild bergamot, Monarda
NOT the bergamot used in Earl Grey tea
Second, if you are looking up a plant online, get its scientific name. Then you can access photographs and check for alternate common names, to find what you are looking for and not get information that applies to some plant with the same or nearly the same common name. If you are trying to identify a plant and you have any doubts about your conclusions, check the location of the author. The closer to you, the better. 

It is not going to get better any time soon. In fact, as more and more individuals contribute to the web, as every business establishes a website, we create ever more opportunities for the online search to go astray. Learn to check where the writer of the blog or website is and to follow the trail of common names using the scientific name to keep your bearings. Then, wow, there are some wonderful websites out there!

Comments and corrections welcome. 

Related posts from this blog: 
when scientific names differ link
Previous posts about common names: what a mess
too many link
too many shared names link
On plants whose common names overlap: sage and sagebrush; bergamot; hemlock 
Plants with too many common names mentioned above: Osage orange, serviceberry 

Ackerfield, J. 2015. Flora of Colorado. BRIT Press, Fort Worth, Texas.
Culpeper, N. Goat's beard. Culpeper's complete herbal. Facsimilie from 1852 online. Originally published 1652. link (Curiously, two other versions of Culpeper online, where it has been retyped, at Bibliomania and, do not include the goat's beards.)
Grieve, M. 1931. Goat's beard. in A modern herbal. online link
Thayer, S. 2010. Nature's garden. Forager's Garden Press, Birchwood, Wisconsin.
Weber, W. A. and R. C. Whitman, 2001. Flora of Colorado eastern slope. 3rd ed. University of Colorado, Boulder.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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