Our Window on Nature

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The Name Game

Filed under: Flowers — Lowell Christie -- March 9, 2007 @ 1:04 pm

Yellow Lady's-SlipperBotanists rely on Latin names for plants to avoid confusion, since the flora they work with contains thousands of species, some of them common to many different lands. But it also strips away most of the romance. Would you be as interested in the appearance of a Houstonia caerulea as you might be about seeing a quaker-lady? Or does the pompous sound of Saponaria officinalis delight your ears as much as its other name, bouncing bet? Probably not.

So after we concede the absolute and concrete necessity of a system of scientific nomenclature, we intend to devote this column to more engaging – and colorful – names for our North American wildflowers.

Some herbs get their names simply to describe a part of the plant. For example, you would expect an umbrella-leaf to have leaves shaped like an umbrella — it does. And you’d expect the leaves of the birdfoot violet to be many lobed — they are. Anyone who has seen a beavertail or a fishook cactus recognizes immediately the source of the name. But so far none of them relates to the flower.

Consider the monkshood then, a deep-blue flower of the highlands shaped like the hood of a medieval monk. There’s a whole monastery of monks, in fact, lined up in obedient rows as though on their way to mass.

Another kind of clothing is described as Dutchman’s-breeches. Visualize several pairs of starched white trousers hung to dry on a flower stalk. And while we’re thinking of Holland, consider the Dutchman’s pipe. This well-named flower gets its name from the similarity of its shape to that of the traditional bulbous pipe smoked by Dutchmen. It’s just too bad the orange flowers bloom on vines that twine high in the trees.

Let your imagination conjure up a picture of the following flowers: bleeding heart and hearts-a-bustin’, lady’s-slipper orchid and bird-on-the-wing. You are probably already familiar with the Indian paintbrush, but did you know that this Native American artist has dipped his brush in red, orange, magenta, coral, yellow, or white, depending upon his location?

People in the Appalachians are noted for their colorful language, so it’s hardly surprising that they call one plant a little brown jug (brush aside the shiny leaves to see one-inch brown flowers in the form of ceramic jugs), and another doll’s eyes (the fruit is a white orb with a black pupil and it grows on a brilliant red stalk.)

Of course, not all plants have agreeable titles; the devil gets his due. Anyone who runs a hand over the sharp thorns on the devil’s walkingstick knows how it gets that name. And if you come home from a hike on the desert with your pant legs decorated with the talons of the devil’s claw you’ll willingly consign them to Satan.

A couple of strikingly beautiful flowers received uncomplimentary names for another reason. Stinking Willie (otherwise known as purple wake-robin) and dirty sox (American bistort) don’t get those names from smelling like a rose.

And then again, there are flowers with names describing their culinary uses. Pepperroot and wild radish have been gathered by many a pioneer whose palate had been jaded by a winter of pumpkin, potatoes, and squash. The stems of sourgrass (referring both to wood and yellow sorrel) make a tangy but tasty snack. Cucumber-root was once widely eaten by the Indians, and its flavor is said to resemble the cucumber. We haven’t tasted that one yet, but we did sample the chokecherry – it’s well named, and we did.

Other wildflowers carry similarly appropriate names. Winter fat sounds prosaic, but it’s important in arid climates as winter forage. Locoweed, on the other hand, poisons cattle. Fly poison carries destruction as its name implies; so does fleabane but only if you’re a flea.

Sneezeweed may not be lethal, but it gives the miseries to anyone suceptible. You might expect a touch-me-not plant to produce a skin rash but not so. Its name comes from the fact that when the mature pods are touched, the fruits “explode.” The sap of this plant is actually used as an antidote for poison ivy and stinging nettle.

We tried to find out the origin of as many descriptive names as possible, discovering that puttyroot is an orchid whose bulblike roots were once made into a paste for mending broken pottery, that fireweed is one of the first flowers to colonize an area after a fire, that butterfly weed attracts masses of butterflies to its nectar, that dog-hobble grows so densely it entangles hunting dogs so the bear gets away.

You only have to see a paper-bag bush, touch a ripe puffball, or be grabbed by a catsclaw acacia to know the significance of their names. But our research failed to turn up the answers to some tantalizing questions. What about the electric light bulb plant? The ironweed and hawkweed, the mouse-ear and hole-in-the-sand? Those names must certainly have a tale to tell.

We believe that some of the more picturesque names were “chust for pretty,” or just for fun – like forget me-not, Grass of Parnassus, virgin’s bower, Queen Anne’s lace. We’ve never glimpsed a genuine fairy duster or Apache plume, nor peered into a Venus looking-glass.

Butter-and-eggs sounds fattening, and watching skyrockets and Jeffrey shooting stars gives you a crick in the neck. Yet imaginative souls go merrily on attaching colorful names to flowers. They thumb their noses at the Latinization and standardization of scientists and cast their vote for romance.


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