What's in a name

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Human beings make sense of the world by naming things. We point towards the night sky, connect the dots between the stars, and give them meaning through stories and names. When it comes to plants, we have been as creative as we were in naming the stars. Often with plants, names can derive from physical features, be poetic, or even an inside joke. Take the beautiful Medlar fruit, for example, in French, it has the unfortunate name of cul de chien, accurate in its description, maybe not the most flattering, since it means dog's arse. 

Mespilus germanicus, commonly known as Medlar fruit.

Mespilus germanicus, commonly known as Medlar fruit.

Plant names differ throughout languages and even regions. You could argue that a plant's common name has a certain charm and most definitely it's uses. It can also kick up a dust storm of confusion. Many plants carry the name rose in their common name, but aren't related to the rose family. And, that's where the botanical name of a plant can cut through the mess. One name. No matter the language or location.

This system of naming plants was first proposed in 1753, when Carl Linnaeus published his Species Plantarum. He came up with a two-word system of naming plants called a binomial nomenclature, designed to bring consistency to the naming and categorisation of plants. Names are rooted in latin or latinised greek. Frequently related to land of origin. Named for plant hunters or botanists. Wether it has broad leaves, small flowers, grows by the sea, high up in the mountains... A two-word name, jam-packed with information, you just need to know how to read it.

Take the common apple, it's botanical name is Malus domestica. The first part, the genus, tells us apples belong to the Malus genus. The second part relates to the species, telling us we're dealing with the domesticated species. From this, we can differentiate it from its ancestor, the wild apple or Malus sieversii. Same genus, different species.

Linnaeus's idea caught on and a growing number of scientists contributed to his work. This collaborative effort caused a surge in plant knowledge. And, his binomial naming system is still in use to this day. In the 19th and 20th century, advances in science and the development of more sophisticated technology allowed for an even deeper study of plants. In addition, universities and institutes were publishing their research to a wider audience. Today, the shared characteristics between plants can be researched on a gene level. These new discoveries cause plants to be renamed, shuffled off into new families, or even a whole new category is created. And, each day new plants are discovered and our understanding of nature grows.

A global botanical language allows us to communicate about plants with very little risk of confusion. It allows us to know a plant growing near a river in Germany is the same as one growing in the north of England. Even when their common names are different, their botanical name is always the same.  

Aside from knowledge for knowledge's sake, what's the actual use in learning the botanical name of a plant?

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Seed by seed

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Knowing the botanical names of plants will make you a better gardner. For the botanical name of a plant tells you something about it. It tells you that it originates from China ('Tea' Camellia sinensis), that it blooms at night ('Night-flowering Catchfly' Silene noctiflora), Maritimus tells you that it grows near the sea. A vegetable can most often be identified by the Oleracea in its name. And, whenever a botanical name holds flora (florus) or folia (folius) as part of its name, something about the flowers or leaves are worth noticing. For example, Jasminum grandiflora tells you that the flowers on this specific species of Jasmine are quite large.

So, how exactly does that make you a better gardner? Say you're starting a garden near the sea. The plants you'll be planting need to be though enough to deal with the higher salt content and moisture in the air. Now, if you go scavenging for all the plants that have maritimus (maritima/maritimum) in their name, you'll quickly find yourself with a good bunch of plants that will thrive in your coastal based garden.

Start remembering a few of these, and bit by bit a few more, and soon the natural world will start to make more sense. A bundle of these characteristics will create a pattern in your mind and you'll start to see how or what makes up a plant family.

Crambe Maritima, commonly known as Sea Kale. Not, an actual kale, but it still belongs to the brassica family

Crambe Maritima, commonly known as Sea Kale. Not, an actual kale, but it still belongs to the brassica family

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Darling, you might want to spice it up

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Learning about plant names and plant families might make you a better gardner and a more knowledgeable person, but what else can it do for you? It can teach you just how diverse your diet is. Say, you love broccoli, which is understandable, broccoli is quite tasty, and you combine it with kale, maybe some brussel sprouts, and you pat yourself on the back congratulating yourself on that plateful of variety. And, in a way it is a variety of sorts, since all of the above veg is a man-made variation on the same plant, or to use the right term, they're a cultivar of the plant Brassica oleracea.

Spinacia oleracea, commonly known as Spinach.

Spinacia oleracea, commonly known as Spinach.

First off, what is a cultivar? A cultivar is a mash-up or portmanteau between two words: cultivation and variety. So, a cultivar is a cultivated variety on an already established species. Every now and then nature comes up with these, but most of the time, a cultivar is man-made.

Most of the time when you're talking about plants, apart from flowers, just the species name will do you fine. Spinach (Spinacia oleracea), sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), aubergine (Solanum melongena)

Although when you get down to what we eat on a regular basis you might find yourself stomped to come up with a veg that isn't a variation on one species or another. Take courgette (Cucurbita pepo), summer squash, and pumpkin, and you'll soon find out they're the exact same species of plant. And, when that happens we sink down further than the species names and enter into subspecies and cultivar region. 

Does that mean you should start hating on your broccoli, probably not, since it's not a very good habit to demonise your food. But, it does make you think on what it actually means to have varied diet. If you'd like to switch things up and introduce your stomach to some new species, why don't you visit a farmer's market, a farm, ethnic store, or maybe even learn to forage.

Knowing the species and which family the plants you eat belong to, can also make you a better cook. How? Well, if you know which of the veg in your fridge belongs to the brassica family, then no matter what you end up doing with them, you'll know that the finer a cruciferous is cut, the more sulphurous it will taste and the more it pays off to combine it with cream (be it coconut or the more animal inclined) or potatoes. And, you'll also know that cooking any veg in the brassica family for too long will turn it bitter and unpalatable, so try not to add them to stocks or long simmering stews, and if you must, hold of to the end to add them.

All that, is why it's quite handy to know a plant's botanical name and which family it belongs to.  Also, there's the added bonus of being able to point at stuff in the garden/farm/store/kitchen and feel like a clever little darling, if not a slightly annoying one, though that mostly counts for shouting out the botanical names of things at a store, which you should probably refrain from. Guided tours and gardens, however, have at it.


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Resources

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  • Harrison, Lorraine. 'RHS Latin for Gardners: over 3000 plant names explained and explored'. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2012.
  • 'RHS Botany for Gardeners: the art and science of gardening explained and explored'. Mitchell Beazley, London,  2013.
  • Segnit, Niki. 'The Flavour Thesaurus: Pairings, recipes and ideas for the creative cook'. Bloomsbury, 2010.

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I spend quite a bit of time researching and studying, but at the end of the day, it's still a learning process. Therefore, If you think I got any of the information wrong, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email with the correct information.



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