Sunday, August 21, 2016

Common Names--What a Mess!

Saskatoon berries, or you might know them as...
Here are the fruits on my saskatoon--you might know them service berries or June berries. In the East you might call this a shadbush. Robins don't argue over the names, they just gobble the fruits down.

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.

strawberry plant
But most people aren't interested in speaking Science, they are communicating to each other in their own language. Common names are the names of plants in the local language. The name people use when they talk to each other.

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. 

Sempervivum techtorum
Houseleek, aka Thor's beard, hens-and-chickens, syngreen...
Fast forward to today. Things that are different include: 1) only a few people know their local plants well; 2) we rely on books or the internet to name plants, often without working very hard to check that it is really the same plant; 3) we can easily get information from a source 100 or 1,000 miles away. That wouldn't be much of a problem if they had the same plants there, but it is likely they don't; 4) Multiple authorities often give different answers, at least to the question: "What is the [common] name of this plant?". 

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.

Artemisia ludoviciana
Here's the plant (Artemisia ludoviciana): what do you call it?
Example: Artemisia ludoviciana is a common grassland plant across the central and western United States, now found in most eastern states as well. It is in the sunflower family, Asteraceae, but is wind-pollinated and so has tiny gray-green flowers, quite nondescript. It is part of the big group of native western North American plants called sages because they smell like culinary sage, although they are not related (see blog post). This one was  collected for science for the first time in the Far West by the Lewis and Clark expedition (as wormwood), so its species epithet, ludoviciana, of Louisiana, commemorates that it was found in the Louisiana Purchase. Current common names I found for this widespread plant are white sagebrush (USDA Plants database), Louisiana sagewort (Ackerfield's Flora of Colorado), silver wormwood (Flora of North America online) and white sage (Wildflowers of Larmier County, Colorado). A nonspecialist could be forgiven for reading about Louisiana sagewort and not knowing it was the white sagebrush he or she knew.  

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. 

Lots of plants do have helpful common names. For example, milkweeds, goldenrods and columbines all are pretty well defined by the common name. Of course, they are recognizeable plants, so that one milkweed is much like others in flower and fruit structure and not like much of anything else. When I think about it, distinctive plants do better than the vast majority of plant species: we recognize and remember them and often (but not always) have one widely-recognized common name. Likewise, common plants, plants that most people recognize, such as dandelions and oaks, often have stable, 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.

Artemisia ludoviciana
white sage?
When I point out a problem, I like to be able to suggest an answer. This one isn't easy. Picking and publishing common names that "everyone uses" where you live, for example, won't solve it. In fact, I think using the local name is why so many authoritative works offer different common names. Often, in different areas of the U.S., people have created different common names for the same species.

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.

Maclura pomifera
bodark, monkey balls, hedge apple, Osage orange...
Thus there are two sources of confusion I'd love to reduce. First, I wish for fewer names for the same plant so that when you read about a plant you get a familiar name and if the name is not familiar, you are pretty sure you don't know the plant. (I am only thinking "for the United States." England, Australia and India, for example, have English common names but they have very different native plants and history. Someone else can dream of worldwide coherence.) Second, I would like not to see the same name on two different plants. When you don't suspect that there are two plants, shared common names create great confusion. 

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

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. 


  1. In some cases examples of different plants sharing the same common name are a simple case of them being used for the same purpose - a good example of that is za'atar, which is applied to a number of different herb species in the Middle East.

    When it comes to writing about plants that are not familiar to your readership, writers have to choose a common name to go with, which is a little bit of a fraught process. I know of at least one who makes up new names for plants and adds to the confusion!

    We're stuck with the historical confusion of plants that appear similar but aren't closely related. Although DNA analysis is now showing their true relations, those common names aren't going anywhere any time soon :)

  2. Emma, I agree. The origins of common names are great fun--often they say a lot about historical uses. And so I don't wish not to tell the stories of the common names, but I do like it when most sources use the same one to identify the plant. I always said hens-and-chickens, but there's much more general use of houseleek for that plant today.