What's in a (Botanical) Name?
What's in a (Botanical) Name?
Jan. 28, 1998
POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) _ A woman casually dropped a botanical name while showing me her flower garden. When I looked blank, her eyes registered surprise, tinged, I thought, with disdain.
Well, my ego grieved. No one likes to look ignorant, but then I soothed myself with these thoughts:
I'm mostly a vegetable grower and hardly, if ever, use a botanical name. Though I'm acquainted with ``Licopersicon esculentum'' for tomato and ``Brassica oleracea (italica)'' for broccoli, I don't go around asking people how their Licopersicons are doing.
But the situation is more demanding in ornamental gardening, where the scientific name may be crucial for accurate identification, since the same common name may refer to different plants.
In line with this, you'll notice that seed catalogs generally don't use botanical names for vegetables, but do so for ornamentals.
Now, no one expects an ordinary gardener to memorize lists of botanical names and be able to rattle them off or flaunt them in your face. But it helps greatly to research a plant when necessary and come up with the right name.
Dale Palmgren, store manager at the Pound Ridge Nursery in my village, says her work is made much easier when a customer uses botanical names.
Illustrating the problems presented by common names, she mentioned ``cohosh.'' This, in the Eastern United States, could be ``Cimicifuga racemosa'' of the buttercup family or ``Caulophyllum thalictroides'' of the barberry family, two unrelated plants. Which does the customer want?
Or take ``pinks.'' Do you want the China Pink, ``Dianthus chinensis'' or is the pink you are looking for Sweet William, ``Dianthus barbatus''?
Naming plants goes back to the origins of civilization because of their importance in human nutrition, medication and survival and hence the need for accurate identification. But it took ages to arrive where we are today _ the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, first issued in 1958 and under constant revision since.
Under this code, a name applies to the same plant everywhere in the world.
The authoritative ``America's Garden Book'' (Macmillan 1996) notes that, under the code, '' `Rosa rugosa' refers to the same species of rose - and only that species _ whether in its native Japan or in Italy, South Africa, Argentina, the United States or anywhere else.''
``Common, or vernacular names, by contrast, are often applied to unlike plants and frequently vary from place to place,'' the volume says. '' `Bluebell,' for example, refers to one species (Mertensia virginica) in Eastern United States, to another (Eustoma grandiflorum) in Texas, to still another (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in England, and to yet another (Campanula rotundifolia) in Scotland - all unrelated.''
Looking at horticultural history, it's fascinating to see how the ancients struggled with the problems of nomenclature. For a long time, plants were usually given a single name followed by a cumbersome series of descriptive nouns and adjectives.
Then, in the 18th century, a Swede named Carl von Linnaeus made a huge breakthrough by establishing a system of giving plants just two names, the genus and the species. This ``binomial system,'' still in effect today, includes for some plants the addition of a variety name and an occasional other embellishment.
The genus name is capitalized while the species name is in lower case. Thus: ``Rosa rugosa.'' Names are mostly in Latin because that was the language used for scholarly communication in Linnaeus' time. But a strong movement has developed among taxonomists (classification scientists) to drop Latin for English in naming newly-discovered species.
English is more practical than Latin nowadays ``because it's widely accessible to everybody throughout the world,'' says Scott Mori, director of the Institute of Systematic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden.
Opponents of a change say it's ``imperialistic'' to think that everybody should know English, Mori notes. The fact that Latin is a nonchanging language is also in its favor, he adds.
So at present newly discovered plants continue to get Latin names. Mori and his wife, for example, discovered a new species of vine in the rain forest of French Guiana in 1994.
They brought the specimen back to the New York Botanical Garden where a specialist, Rupert Barneby, named the species after them. The new plant is called ``Disciphania moriorum Barneby.'' ``Moriorum'' is the plural possessive case of ``Mori'' in Latin. Barneby's name is there because he's the author.
George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.