Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What's in a name?

When traveling to non-English-speaking countries, I stick close to Ed -- or, if Jack is with us, I stay glued to him. Both my boys have amazing ears to distinctly hear foreign languages and brains that are wired to retain linguistic skills. I have neither.

But as of late, I do have an interest in learning a new language: the language of plants. More specifically, I want to learn taxonomy, the science of classification. You know, those foreign, multisyllabic, italicized, difficult-to-spell or -pronounce names in ancient languages. Developed by Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus in the mid 1700s, his binomial system of nomenclature describes the "genus" and "species" of plants. 

I've learned that the scientific name, sometimes referred to as the botanical name, can be drawn from many sources, including Latin and Greek, names of people and places, and sometimes even anagrams. (The flowering plant species Muilla is an anagram of the onion genus Allium!) I never studied Latin but evidently all educated people in the 1700s learned Latin, no matter what country they were from. All scientific papers were written in Latin so that everyone could understand them, no matter what language they spoke. Good old Carl, was simply following this practice. 

So the Latin names of plants are universal, translating across international borders, and reducing confusion. They offer precision and accuracy governed by a code of nomenclature that is rigorous and standardized. An international congress takes place every year to update the code. This is serious stuff. 

When used properly, scientific names eliminate the common problem with common names: There can be hundreds of common names for the same plant, or conversely, the same common name can be used for hundreds of different species. If I can learn the Latin name, I'll always know its correct name. Also, because Latin isn't spoken much by anyone, it doesn't change over time. You can pretty much be sure that a Latin name will mean the same thing that it did 300 years ago -- and probably the same thing 300 years from now. 

I'm getting a bit of a late start on this new skill. In fact, I hardly know the common name for most plants, but, like any new language, the best way to learn is to start using it in daily life. 

This past weekend, Ed and I went hiking in the Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve in far Eastern Kentucky, located on the south face of Pine Mountain. The preserve protects the largest old growth forest known in Kentucky. Many of the trees were not yet leafed out, but a multitude of wildflowers were popping up all along the creek trail. Here are a few of what we saw -- noted first by their scientific name, and then by their common name. It took me a while to figure these out -- and I'm not entirely sure I've got them right -- but I cross-checked them with three wildflower guides, plus a bit of googling.

Convallaria majalis (Lily-of-the-Valley)

Diphasiastrum digitatum (Ground Cedar)
 Cardamine concatenata (Cutleaf Toothwart)

Stellaria pubera (Star Chickweed)
Osmundastrum cinnamomeum (Cinnamon Fern)

Podophyllum peltatum (Mayapple)

Viola pubescens (Yellow Woodland Violet)

Geranium maculatum (Wild Geranium)

To get me started on my journey of learning the Latin names, here's a list of terms often used. I've been counseled not to worry about how to pronounce them as botanical names tongue-tie nearly everyone. One expert advised: "There's no proper way to pronounce these names except for clearly, loudly and with conviction!"

Colors of flowers or foliage
albus - white
argenteus - silvery
aureus - golden
azureus azure - sky blue
caeruleus - dark blue
candidus - pure white, shiny
citrinus - yellow
concolor  - one color
discolor - two colors, separate colors
glaucus - covered with gray bloom
pallidus - pale
purpureus - purple
rubens, ruber - red, ruddy

Form of leaf or plant
arboreus - treelike
contortus - twisted
depressus - pressed down
elegans - elegant, slender, willowy
grandi - large, showy
humilis - low, small, humble
imperialis - showy
impressus - sunken
laurifolius - laurel-like
prostratus - prostrate
reptans - creeping
scabrus - rough-feeling

africanus - of Africa
alpinus - of the Alps
australis - southern
borealis - northern
campestris - of the field or plains
canadensis - of Canada
canariensis - of the Canary Islands
capensis - of the Cape of Good Hope area
chilensis - of Chile
chinensis - of China
hispanicus - of Spain
hortensis - of the garden
indicus - of India
insularis - of the island
japonicus - of Japan
littoralis - of the seashore


Note: Until now, the extent of my Latin language skills has been limited to what Ed always told our kids was our family motto: Semper ubi sub ubi. If you want to know how it translates, you will have to google it.