Sunday, September 25, 2016

Common Names--Too Many Choices

Since people have been using plants "forever" you'd think plants would have long ago gotten generally-agreed-upon common names. But that is not the case. The internet is revealing that across the U.S. we call the same plant by many different names (earlier post). 

It is not the internet's fault, of course. We've been calling plants by different names all along, but now, instead of digging in my local plant identification book, I google the plant and come up with a series of different responses. For example Lithospermum incisum came up on the USDA plants list as narrowleaf stoneseed, at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center as golden puccoon. and on as fringed gromwell. 

fringed puccoon, Lithospermum incisum
narrowleaf stoneseed, golden puccoon,
fringed gromwell, Lithospermum incisum

Lots of plants do give me a single common name, for example small soapweed, wild bergamot and bur oak.
small soapweed Yucca glauca
small soapweed (Yucca glauca)
But too many, like narrowleaf stoneseed/ golden puccoon/ fringed gromwell, have multiple unrelated names, making identification and communication difficult.

Science handled this 260 years ago by creating a scientific name for every plant and requiring that there be only one scientific name per plant. Thus I can write Lithospermum incisum unambiguously. There is no such rule for common names, so I might need to give several common names so my readers recognize the plant. I can't and don't expect everyone who enjoys plants to learn their scientific names. I struggle to communicate through a maze of diverse common names.

Why is there this problem?

It likely goes back to a principle I observed long ago in computer program development: no two people do things exactly the same way. Applied to plants, no two groups will choose all the same common names. 

How were plant names created? By people needing to refer to a plant and have other people understand. The names for some plants are surprisingly recent. The Europeans who came to North America encountered some 30,000 new plants and created English names for them. In addition, over the last 500 years, plants from all over the world have been introduced to North America, intentionally and unintentionally, all of them needing names that Americans recognize.
American native wildflower...somebody in the last 500
years created an English name for it
Since there are no rules to common names, everyone has been free to invent whatever they like. Of course that led to variety! Of course different people's name choices became standard in differnt areas.

It wouldn't be annoying if I just looked in Ackerfield's Flora of Colorado and used the common name there and everyone around me also used the same Flora of Colorado so we all got the same names. But this is the 21st century! With the internet I can look the plant up in the Flora of Colorado or the USDA website. So I got Carduus nutans as musk thistle (Flora of Colorado) and nodding plumeless thistle (USDA).

Carduus nutans
musk thistle and nodding plumeless thistle 
If everyone referred back to the scientific name, multiple common names wouldn't be a problem. You can say musk thistle and I can say nodding plumeless thistle but if we both know it is Carduus nutans, we can communicate. The problem is the tremendous number of websites and books that use only a common name and don't realize that the common name they are using is regional--that in other areas the same plant has another name. For example, these four websites are talking about the same tree:  bois d'arc, hedge apple, bodark,  Osage orange. While a search on any of those names brings up information giving the scientific name and alternate common names, the sites themselves do not. Undoubtedly there are many sites which don't think to mention more than one name. That is totally normal, most users of plants--for wood, for garden flowers, as food--aren't interested in fussing with names.  My gripe is that if you are on a website that calls it bodark and you don't know bodark = Osage orange, you'll not know the information is relevant to your question about Osage orange.

The problem is old but the internet makes it much worse. Few of us work much with plants, most of us use the internet for information. The internet is words and to a lesser degree pictures. The plant is reduced to whichever name you search on. Consequently the search is only as good as the name you know and your energy for comparing pictures or checking the range of the plant. If your question is "can I eat this?" I'd advise checking carefully. If the question is "do I want this in my lawn?" getting to a similar plant, a different sedge for example (weedy sedges) may suffice. 

sedges in a field
This is a sneaky problem. When you don't know that the plant has two names, you don't know that you need to find another search term. I have a half-written post about larkspurs (Delphinium species) and was trying to find how they were used England over the last 400 years. I didn't find much of anything. Then in the index of Mrs. Grieve's A Modern Herbal, I saw two delphiniums, Delphinium consilida and D. staphisagria. (The online version doesn't have an index of scientific names). Delphinium consilida was field larkspur. I'd been looking up larkspurs. But Delphinium staphisagria had the common names stavesacre and lousewort. Oh! Armed with those names I found lots of references to Delphinium in England. For example, Culpepper's Complete Herbal, which has no index of scientific names, does not have any entry on larkspurs, but includes staves-acre (Culpeper index).

The larkspur/staves-acre example is from Britain, and Americans (and other non-British speakers of English) need to be alert to common name differences between continents, but the principle applies within a country. Not all Americans use the same common name, so when they write about it, they'll call it different things and that is potentially misleading. What if I had asked "was anyone ever poisoned by larkspur?" and didn't know one common Delphinium was called staves-acre? I might get a misleading lack of hits.
Delphinium, larkspur
American Delphinium
 common name larkspur
Recommendation: If you are looking for a plant, search on the common name you know and then get a scientific name and search on that, watching for unexpected alternate common names, then search on those. By the time you've done that, you may be annoyed with all the miscellany on the web, but you have probably not missed something important.

I would like more uniformity in common names, but even if we work toward having one generally used common name for important American plants, it'll take years. For a long time yet there will be  sites writing about the tree bodark, bois d'arc, horse apple, monkey ball, or Osage orange that fail to mention it has other common names. The search engines are increasingly making suggestions that help with this: a search on bodark on Google brings up a box with Osage orange (bodark).

My point is that it is a mess out there, and with your power to search the internet, you can miss sites that talk about the plant you are looking because they use a name you've never seen. Be aware of that when you search!

scarlet gaura
I've called this waving butterfly; what do you call it?
(Gaura coccinea, now Oenothera suffrutescens)

Comments and corrections welcome.

Free Download: I combined my blogs about plant names and the rules governing them into an ebook Botany Rules (Blog posts caleld Botany Rules 1-6 of this blog).
It's free. 
To receive your copy click here: Botany Rules ebook 

Ackerfield, J. 2015. Flora of Colorado. B.R.I.T. Press, Fort Worth, Texas.
and websites cited within the blog. 

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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