What’s in a Name?
Have you ever wondered just why herbalists refer to plants by both common and Latin names? When I was first learning about the properties of plant medicine, I was often frustrated by references to the long, difficult-to-pronounce Latin names. After all, why not simply say, “Chickweed” or “Dock”?
Plants, like trees, animals, birds, fish and everything else in our environment were named by the local people who interacted with them. Sometimes the same name was given to plants that may seem similar but have very different properties. The Hemlock tree (Tsuga) was given its common name due to a similarity in the smell of its crushed foliage with that of Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum). However, an important distinction is that while Tsuga is not poisonous, Conium maculatum is quite lethal.
Red Root is another great example. In some areas, Red root refers to Ceanothus americanus, a member of the Buckthorn family-a wonderful lymphogogue used to treat conditions such as sinusitis, tonsillitis, mononucleosis. Ceanothus americanus is considered a fairly ‘safe’ botanical medicine. Now compare this to another plant sometimes also referred to as Red Root: Sanguinaria canadensis, a member of the Papaveraceae or poppy family. Although more commonly referred to as Blood Root, this plant is administered as a drop-dose medicinal, can be quite toxic in larger doses and should only be used by experienced practitioners.
I became more aware of the disparity of using common plant names when I was discussing herbal medicine with one of my coworkers. She grew up in the southeastern part of the United States and referred to Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) as “Blood Root”. Not knowing she was referring to R. crispus, I was alarmed that this budding herbalist was making a potentially toxic medicine using Sanguinaria canadensis. It was only after some in-depth discussion that we realized we were discussing two entirely different plants.
Usage of common plant names can also present potential problems when you refer to herbals written during earlier periods in history or in different geographical locations. Common plant names just do not translate well across continents or historical times. However, Latin binomial names are consistent throughout the world.
So, just how did plants become endowed with those challenging Latin names? We have Swedish botanist Carl Nilsson Linnæus to thank. Born in 1707, Linnaeus, known as the “father of modern taxonomy” laid the foundations for the modern naming of plants and animals by grouping species according to shared physical characteristics, beginning with his work Species Plantarum in 1753. Using a two-part or binomial name consisting of the genus name followed by the species name or epithet, Linnaeus developed a system of classifying organisms which would eventually become universally accepted in the scientific world. Linnaean taxonomy classifies nature by a hierarchy, starting with the broad Kingdoms (plant, animal). These are further divided into Classes, then into Orders, Genera and finally, into Species. Plants are sometimes further classified into Varieties.
You can think of binomial Latin names in much the same way as we refer to ourselves. For example, if your last name is “Smith” this would be your genus name and your first name, “Mary”, your species name: Smith mary. Your children, John and Beth would be species of the genus Smith: Smith john and Smith beth.
As botanists discover new information, older taxonomic references are changed to better reflect this new knowledge. Although botanists embrace these changes, the older botanical names and references often continue to be used in books and plant catalogues which can cause confusion. For example, plants in the Parsley family, including Angelica (Angelica archangelica) and Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) were considered members of the Umbelliferae family, a reference to their umbrella-like flowers. However, contemporary botanists now refer to plants in the Parsley family as belonging to the Apiaceae family.
Taxonomic names are italicized, with the first letter of the genus name capitalized, but the species name written in all lower case letters. Sometimes, in place of the species name you may see the abbreviation, “spp”. This simply means there are many species with similar properties. In our example above with the Smiths, reference to Mary, John and Beth would be written as Smith spp (spp is not italicized).
You may see the word, officinalis or officinale in place of the species name, as in Valeriana officinalis (Valerian). Plants which were used for medical purposes were given this distinction.
Sometimes the genus name is abbreviated once it has been identified. For example, in an article discussing Oregon Grape, after initially identifying the plant as Mahonia aquifolium, it may be then referred to as M. aquifolium.
|Species names are often descriptive of the plant, such aquifolium which suggests that the leaf is holly-like , but literally means, ‘wet foliage’ (Mahonia aquifolium or Oregon Grape), montana which means, ‘from the mountain’ (Arnica montana) or purpurea, meaning ‘deep pink’ (Echinacea purpurea). Susan Mahr (University of Wisconsin) wrote a very good article entitled, “What’s In A Name? Understanding Botanical or Latin Names” which includes a list of some of the more commonly used descriptive names: http://wimastergardener.org/?q=PlantNames
Sometimes the species is named for the individual who discovered it, such as the Douglas Fir tree, Pseudotsuga menziesii. Its common name honors Pacific Northwest explorer, David Douglas, but its Latin epithet is named for naturalist Dr. Archibald Menzies who first described the Douglas Fir. Pseudotsuga means ‘false hemlock’ and to add just a hint of confusion here, the Douglas Fir is not considered a true fir tree either.
I can hear some decidedly unhappy sighing right about now. S-I-G-H….Latin…how am I ever going to pronounce these unpronounceable names? Simple. In the words of one of my beloved mentors, “just say it as you think it should be pronounced, with conviction and confidence.” If you really look at the name, taking it one syllable at a time, it is not that difficult. After all, just how many folks today will know exactly how Latin is supposed to be pronounced to correct you?
If you begin getting into the habit of writing the taxonomic name after the common name (at the very least when you first mention the plant you are referring to) you will be able to learn them rather quickly. Another method is to write the taxonomic name on one side of an index card with the common name on the other and periodically, test your knowledge. I’ve also learned that whenever I discuss herbs with anyone, I always say both the common name and the taxonomic name at the beginning of our discussion to avoid any confusion.
OK now, repeat after me: Hypericum perforatum, Avena sativa, Althea officinalis.
This information is offered for educational purposes and is not intended to take the place of personalized medical care from a trained healthcare professional. The reader assumes all risk when utilizing the above information.
Copyright© 2013 Louise Harmon
All Rights Reserved
Elpel, Thomas. (2008). Botany in a Day. Pony, MT: HOPS Press
Tilgner, Sharol. (1999). Materia Medica: http://www.herbaltransitions.com/BotanCom.html
Pojar, J., Mackinnon, A. (2004). Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Auburn, WA: Lone Pine Publishing
Wikipedia: Binomial System: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binomial_system
Accessed 16 February 2013
Wikipedia: Carl Linnaeus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Linnaeus
Accessed 14 February 2013
Wikipedia: Tsuga: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsuga
Accessed 18 February 2013