You should try to hear the name the Holy One has for things.
There is something in the phrase: “The Holy One has taught him names.”
We name everything according to the number of legs it has;
The other one names it according to what it has inside.
Moses waved his stick; he thought it was a “rod,”
But inside its name was “dragonish snake.”
We thought the name of Blake was “agitator against priests,”
But in eternity his name is “the one who believes.”
No one knows our name until our last breath goes out.
Robert Bly, News of the Universe
In Victorian times, a young woman could not acknowledge the presence of a man until they had been properly introduced by a mutual friend. Until then he did not exist. But after the introduction, he had some claim on her attention and possibly her influence in the future. I feel the same way about plants. Once I know their names, they enter my circle of friends; they claim my attention, and sometimes make requests of me.
Names convey complex layers of information. They indicate class, ethnicity, religion, age, and degree of familiarity. In an earlier time, they often specified physical characteristics, like William the Red (William Rufus) or occupation (William Tanner). Plant names still retain these references although the fancier plants have lost their moorings and drift on seas of fancy as we do with our personal names.
The Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, was the first person to develop a coherent system for naming plants. His surname means linden tree. His father, who went by the name of Ingemarsson (Ingemar’s son) had to pick a more distinctive surname when he enrolled in a university and chose Linneaus, the Latin for linden, after a magnificent tree which grew on his ancestral estate. I find it amusing to consider how being named for a tree might have influenced Linnaeus in his choice of occupation. His mother wanted him to be a priest but he loved plants and it was said that as a baby he could be calmed by handing him a flower.
Linnaeus lived during the 18th century, the great age of collection when every naturalist’s prized possession was a cabinet full of curiosities and botanists were explorers, fanning out across the earth, shipping seeds and plants across rivers, mountains and oceans. Names were necessary to sort catalog and compare the specimens they gathered. Latin names provided a common vocabulary which permitted scientists to share discoveries despite the barriers of countries and languages.
Linnaeus established the binomial classification system: assigning two Latin names to each plant. The first (always capitalized like a surname) identifies the plant as a member of a family or genus (from the Roman gens). The Compositae family is a large one including asters, sunflowers, calendulas, Michaelmas daisies--all related by the composition of their petals. Sometimes these families contain surprising members. Both the poisonous deadly nightshade and the tomato are members of the Solanaceae family, which explains why the English at first grew tomatoes only as ornamentals called love apples.
The second Latin word is a species modifier, called an epithet. It usually describes some unique physical characteristic of the plant. The garden writer, Ketzel Levine, gives a delightful assignment to gardeners afraid of Latin names. She suggests you take your surname and add a Latinate ending, say us or ia. Then devise a second name which describes one of your characteristics. She calls herself Levineus spiraus (for her curly hair). I named myself Fitzgeraldus scriptoria (after my tendency to write).
A plant has only one Latin name but may sport many common names. These names are almost like nicknames. They often contain clues about the plant’s medicinal uses, the way it looks, the time it flowers. The word “wort” usually signifies a plant with medicinal value, like motherwort, which is prescribed for cramps and other problems of the womb and liverwort (you can guess what that’s good for). The tickweed (Coreopsis) is so named because the tiny black humped seeds resemble ticks.
Common names can be quite comical and entertaining. The autumn crocus (colchicum autumnale) is a naked maiden in Germany (because it has no leaves, just a bare flower stalk). In France, they are called dog-killers and bare-bottoms. In England, Wilfrid Blunt (who gives this delightful list) mentions the names: upstarts, daggers, kite’s legs, naked boys and naked nannies. While the Arabs call them, he says, the lamps of the ghoul.
Like pedigreed dogs and racehorses, plants that have been bred for show have the fanciest names of all. I’m a big fan of bearded irises, which have been hybridized over centuries to produce all sorts of fantastic effects with ruffled falls, contrasting beards and variegated standards. But I love irises, not for their showy appearances, but for their fragrance, which is why I like the dark ones the best (they small like sugar and violets). These dusky beauties have names that promise mystery, refer to the night, hint at the sinister, names like Hello Darkness, Ghost Train, Around Midnight. The names of new varieties often refer back to the names of their parents. Thus the iris Fade to Black is a child of Hello Darkness.
In my quest to become better acquainted with plants. I’ve employed several strategies for learning their names. On my walks, I gather samples or sketch pictures, then come home and enter the relevant keywords into Google. There are many web sites on the Internet which provide photographs of wild flowers by color and region. I tried using a plant identification book but found it required botanical knowledge beyond my capabilities. I needed to know terms like corymb and calyx, pinnate and panicles.
A trip to the local nursery proved more useful since each plant was banded with its names (both Latin and common). If I could find my mystery plants—and I couldn’t find them all—I could memorize their names. But it was hard to retain them, like learning the names of strangers in a classroom or a party. Without a context, the names faded from my mind.
Sometimes when I’m walking by a plant, the name (either the Latin name or the common one) will just come into my mind. At first I liked to imagine these were memories from a past life as a herbalist. After reading Stephen Buhner’s book on indigenous plant medicine, I learned that native healers learn about how to use plants from “listening” to the plants, which offer their wisdom. Now I like to believe the plants are speaking directly to me. It is also possible that I’m simply retrieving from my memory a name I heard many years ago.
By far the most successful technique has been the most ancient one: asking a mutual friend for an introduction. As I circle my block, looking at the plants I know by name, I realize that I have not learned their names from books, web sites or nurseries. Each one is associated with the person who first showed me the plant. As a result, they now claim my attention. In turn, I do my part: using my influence to make their lives better and introducing them to my friends.
Blunt, Wilfrid, Linnaeus, Princeton University Press
Blunt, Wilfrid, Of Flowers and a Village: An Entertainment for Flower Lovers, Timber Press reprint 2006
Buhner, Stephen Harrod, Sacred Plant Medicine
deWit, H.C.D., Plants of the World, The Higher Plants, Volume 1, Dutton 1966
Levine, Ketzel, Plant This! Sasquatch 2000
Copyright © Waverly Fitzgerald 2007
Reprinted with the kind permission of the author, Waverly Fitzgerald from her wonderful website, School of the Seasons.
The School of the Seasons is open to anyone who is weary of the frantic pace of modern life, who wants to slow down, connect with the natural world, and live a life filled with heart and meaning. Each season has its own flavor, captured in the folklore of seasonal holidays, preserved in rituals and recipes, ceremonies and songs.
School of the Seasons helps you connect with the seasons through articles on seasonal crafts and recipes for holiday foods, a correspondence course (with suggestions on spiritual practices and creative pursuits that match the energy of each season) and books on time management and the seasons. Our holiday calendar features moon lore, pagan rituals, saints days and seasonal world holidays.
Photo Credits from top to bottom: Photo of the author from her website, clip art Letters, picture of Carolus Linnaeus "Portrait by Per Krafft" from The University of Uppsala Art Collections, flower photo by J. Sherry from our garden, painting of Autumn Crocus by Joseph Prestele, photo of greenhouse plant flat.