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. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Hawaiian Plants: Names in Hawaiian, Names in Latin, Names in English

View from Richardson Beach, Hilo, Hawaii
View from Richardson Beach, Hilo, Hawaii
    Despite being part of the United States, Hawaiian plants have strong ties to Asia. The Asian connection suggests interesting comparisons to plants of the Americas. What plant was used to dye kapa purple? Are those almonds on the beach? 
Fruits of the tropical almond, Terminalia catappa, Mauna Kea Beach, Hawaii
 almonds? on Mauna Kea Beach, Hawaii
    Does the Hawaiian poppy have yellow sap like the similar-looking plant of Colorado?

    To look up answers to these questions I needed to know the name of the plant.

Plant named in Hawaiian
Plant identified with Hawaiian name
    For me, plant names let people talk about plants.  As a serious botanist, I would like to use whatever name the person to whom I’m talking uses.  I long ago decided I had to be bi-lingual, using common names with some people and scientific names with others.  Common names are local names. Even if we got everyone in the English-speaking world to agree to use the same common names, there would be different common names for the same plant in French, German, Polish, Arabic...or Hawaiian.

        One plunges Hawaiian plant identification to find they are called pohuehue, kukui, liliko’i...


      Scientific names were created to cut through the confusion resulting from multiple languages. The idea is that each species has only one scientific name. The scientific name is in Latin for historic reasons--when the system was set up, in the 1750‘s, Latin was the language that unified educated Europeans. The system works today.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Visiting Hawaii

   I’m just back from a visit to Hawaii.  For me, Hawaii is the Big Island. I lived there in 1981-2, doing plant ecology research. I’m a tourist these days, but feel like a former resident when I visit. 
Colorado in March

   The first thing that struck me was the colors. We left a Colorado that was powder blue, white and light brown.

    The Hilo side of the Big Island is green--toweringly green, diversely green, envelopingly green--the sky deep blue with white clouds, the ocean midnight blue.
Hilo area, March

Kona area, March

     The Kona side is green where they water, but the natural landscape is shades of brown and black with the occasional reddish highlight and vaguely green shrubs with tiny leaves under an azure sky.

Waimea (Kamuela) in March
     This trip we stayed in Waimea (also called Kamuela to distinguish it from several other Waimeas) at 2500’ where the road from Kona to Hilo goes around the shoulders of snowcapped Mauna Kea. That area is the intense light green of cattle pastures, ankle deep in tropical grasses with the gray green of towering ironwood trees (Casuarina equistifolia) and, most of the time we were there, gray skies with wind-driven drizzle.         

     The prevailing winds, causing unequal rainfall, make these stark contrasts.  None of these areas gets frost. Hilo is the wettest city in the United States with about 125” of rain a year. Kona is the vacation destination because its annual rainfall is less than 15”. With irrigation they have beautiful golf courses and flowering shrubs. 

      For the midwinter botanist, it was a joy to be catapulted back into midsummer. Hawaii’s tomatoes were locally vine-ripened.  The oranges and papayas came off a nearby tree. Trees and shrubs were flowering.