Sunday, April 19, 2020

Names and Confusions

Last month, researching cucumbers (Cucumis sativa), I discovered that recent studies show that they were unknown in Europe before the 1300s. Originally from northern India, cucumbers were cultivated in southern Asia long ago but stayed there. Detaileded studies of cucumber reports from Europe before 1300, published in 2007-2009 by Janick, Paris, and Parrish, found the fruits drawn or described in Europe were actually Cucumis melo, melons, if not more distant relatives (Bryonia, Ecballium and others).

Thus, all those reports of Egyptians using cucumbers, of Biblical references, of Greeks and Romans loving cucumbers, all are misidentified. The melons, Cucurbita melo, have been cultivated for thousands of years. Mostly when we say "melon" we think of round fruits that are sweet such as muskmelon and honeydews. (Watermelons are a different genus, Citrullus). But some varieties of Cucurbita melo produce long green fruits that are not sweet. The ancients called those snake melons, and generations of botanists have, knowing cucumbers from their modern lives, uncritically assumed they were cucumbers. Janick, Paris, and Parrish carefully compared the features of cucumbers (C. sativa) and melons (C. melo) and one by one showed the reports of cucumbers from ancient Europe and the Middle East were really melons. The earliest actual cucumber they could identify was in 1353. After that there are lots of paintings and descriptions of cucumbers in Europe; apparently they were a popular new vegetable after they came into Europe in the 14th century.

[Key to the difference are fruit characteristics: Cucumbers have warty fruits with tiny spines, but the fruits are otherwise smooth, straight, and solid colored. Some modern varieties are nearly wartless and slightly stripy. The plants of ancient Europe lacked the warts, often were covered in hairs, had dramatic grooves or stripes down the length of the fruit, and were curved. ]

cucumbers Cucumis sativa
Note warts: cucumbers Cucumis sativa
cucumbers Cucumis sativa
Cucumbers Cucumis sativa from my grocery store,
warts almost eliminated
melon Cucumis melo
No warts, long groove: melon Cucumis melo
So most online websites and books have the story wrong.

BUT modern marketers have been reaching out for new vegetables, for grocery store and garden. Consequently, you can buy or grow snake melons (Cucumis melo) today. But snake melons aren't sweet or round, they're long and green, so producers have started calling them Armenian cucumbers.

And so, all those stories of cucumbers in ancient Europe and Rome are true, for Armenian cucumbers, though not for the common cucumber. (See Paris and Janick article).

Does it matter whether we say cucumber or melon for Armenian cucumbers? It clearly created confusion for historians, but for the rest of us, likely its not important. And yet using the same name for two different plant species can mislead and sometimes cause dangerous mistakes.

Humans seem to find it easier to identify things if they refer them to others they already know. American sages (sagebrushes, genus Artemisia) smelled like sage from Europe (genus Salvia) so were given that name. Botanists classify by relationships, originally with observable characters, today with DNA similarities. American sages are in the sunflower family, Asteraceae, while traditional culinary sage is in the mint family, Lamiaceae. They have the smell in common, not DNA or flower or seed or leaf characteristics.

New World plants have many examples of people naming a new plant with an allusion to a familiar Old World organism; hemlock the tree named for (poison) hemlock the weed; ground cherry is related to tomatoes not cherries; evening primrose is neither a primrose nor a rose; red cedar is a juniper, related to Old World cedars only in being a conifer, etc.

Of course its not just plants. Prairie dogs are not dogs, the pronghorn antelope is not an antelope, American robins and English robins are quite different birds.

The process continues. I bought Crayola washable markers to lighten the winter by coloring. They have the color kiwi. A Kiwi is a New Zealander--but of course they mean about the same green as the fruit. More seriously annoying are the colors ultraviolet and infrared. Both of those are wave lengths of light that are invisible to humans. I imagine some child getting the wrong answer on a standardized test because for him or her ultraviolet is a purple marker. But they were familiar names.

Many name confusions are out there and the Crayola names suggest that despite all the information available, people go on generating confusion by creating new, cute, and related-to-something-you-know names.
Agastache  anise hyssop
Beyond Armenian cucumbers, a good example is agastache. Agastache is a genus of very pretty plants from (mainly) southwestern North America. They are in the mint family. Agastache is not very pronounceable so somebody created the common name hyssop, as in anise hyssop or giant hyssop. Hyssop, genus Hyssopus, is also in the mint family, but native to southern Europe and famous as European medicinal and culinary herbs. Most Americans don't know the original hyssop plant, but they know the name. Agastache is becoming just "hyssop." Presently, I think people will imagine Agastache when they read the Biblical passages about hyssop (for example 1  Kings 4:33 - "And he spoke of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall.") Calling agastache hyssop has traded ease of name-learning for confusing two plants.

For the record, these plants share names but aren't related
> culinary sage (Salvia officinalis, mint family) and sagebrush (Artemisia species, sunflower family) (sage/sagebrush post)
> (poison) hemlock (Conium maculatum, dill family) and hemlock tree (Tsuga species, pine family) (hemlocks post)
> cherry (Prunus species, rose family) and ground cherry (Physalis species, tomato family) and Surinam cherry (Eugenia uniflora, myrtle family)
> rose (Rosa species, rose family), primrose (Primula species, primrose family) and evening primrose (Oenothera species, evening primrose family) (evening primrose post)
> cedar (Cedrus species, pine family) and red cedar (Juniperus species, cypress family)
>strawberry (Fragaria species, rose family) and southern Europe's strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo, heather family)

evening primrose Oenothera

in addition to those examples, consider:
>marigold is both Tagetes (New World) and Calendula (Old World) (marigold confusion post) ;
>bergamot is a pear, a citrus fruit, and a mint (Bergamot confusion post);
>tea is the shrub that produces the beverage tea (Camellia sinensis), the medicinal plant that gives tea tree oil (Melaleuca), a Pacific shrub, Hawaiian ti (Cordyline species), and in Australia Leptospermum laevigatum.
> indigo is applied to plants not related to the traditional dye plant (Indigofera species, pea family, Fabaceae) such as Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) in the knotweed family (Polygonaceae) and to a genus of North American plants called false indigo, genus Baptista, of which at least one species produces a blue dye.
> pine is in the name of conifers in the genus Pinus as in red pine and Ponderosa pine, Australian pines, narrow-leaved flowering trees related to beeches, from Australia (Casuarina), and screw pines, Pandanus, a monocot (like grasses and lilies), from the Pacific. And of course, pineapples (Ananas comosus).

I am sure there are more examples.

Quite different plants, generally somewhat related, are called beans, peas, asters, daisies, sunflowers, and mints.

Perhaps the bottom line is, it is a language jungle out there! A chaos of names that may lead you into visualizing the wrong thing. Be wary.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Janick, J., H. S. Paris and D. C. Parrish. The cucurbis of Mediterranean Antiquity: Identification of taxa from ancient images and descriptions. Annals of Botany. 100: 1441-1457. 2007.
Paris, H. S. and J. Janick 2008. What the Emperor Tiberious grew in his greenhouses. Cucurbitaceae 2008. pages 33-41 link
See also links above.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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