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  • Heather Raithby Doyle

Plant names: past, present and future

Updated: May 2

Why excrement of the stars, corpse’s face powder or raven’s ochre might be the best and truest names for a puffball mushroom

by Heather Raithby Doyle

Plant names take us down a rambling, interesting road. It turns out there is a lot of history in a name, and omission as well. 

Why, for example, do so many native plants have “weed” in their name? So many glorious plants: Joe Pye weed, swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, tickweed, and sneezeweed have weed as part of their common name. According to scholars, these names are a legacy from colonial settlers who, not familiar with the New World plants, designated them weeds.

Go to any garden centre and you will see plants labeled with common names and Latin names. What’s that all about?

Common names are often regional, and imaginative: pussy toes (Antennaria dioica) have flowers that look like kitten paws. Virgin’s bower, (Clematis virginiana) is known as the devil’s knitting needles, or old man’s beard. Researchers find this confusion problematic.

Those of a scientific bent prefer to use Latin names. This is a naming convention developed by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish biologist and physician, to classify plant and animal species. Formally called Latin binomial nomenclature,  the name includes a genus and species, written in italics with the genus capitalized and the species lowercase.

A further twist: when a plant has been bred to have specific characteristics, it becomes a cultivar. This cultivar name is enclosed in single quotes so you know the plant has been manipulated. For example you might see this label at a nursery: eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) 'Columbus strain’. Native plants will never have a cultivar attached to their name.

Latin was a common language used by European scientists 300 plus years ago. Names of plants and animals were given to honor the person who “discovered” them, to flatter people in power, and to describe a quality. This continues today with the Taylor Swift millipede and a snake named after Leonardo de Caprio. On a rainy day, it’s amusing to delve into the history of names. Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnal) is reported to be named by Linnaeus himself, and refers to a legend that these flowers sprung up where Helen of Troy’s tears fell. The sneezing part refers to snuff made from its leaves, which caused sneezing and expelling of evil spirits.

Above: Sneezeweed, aka Helen's flower (Helenium autumnal). Photo: Joshua Meyer

Still, naming plants and animals after people can be problematic. Birds who are named after slave owners, for example, make the birding world feel less inclusive for black people. The American Ornithological Society announced in November 2023 that it would rename all birds in its jurisdiction to reflect traits and habitats rather than people. "We’re hoping to be imaginative about this," said noted naturalist and author Kenn Kaufman in an interview with USA Today. "It’s a great chance to come up with beautiful and evocative ways of describing the visual appearance, song, or habitat they live in."  

The plant and animal name gatekeepers are currently less enthusiastic: The goal of naming species—or nomenclature—is to make sure scientific names are uniform across different fields and research labs, said Luis Ceríaco in an interview with Smithsonian magazine. Ceriaco is a commissioner with the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, which controls the naming of animal species. “It’s a space to promote stability and promote universality in the use of names,” Ceríaco added. “What we want is to have a set of rules that allow people to really know what they are talking about when referring to species.” 

Another idea, and one, frankly one that seems just, would be to use to Indigenous names for plants. After all, no group of people has more knowledge of plants better than those who lived among and used the very plants we are talking about.  Perhaps it’s time to pay our respects to the people that carried that knowledge through thousands of years. 

There are of course a few hurdles, one being the sheer diversity of Indigenous languages and words for a single plant. One example is a puffball mushroom and the multitude of names given to it by indigenous people across the country. These names evocatively translate in English to: sack-like object burst, egg, raven pops it, raven’s smoke, raven’s ocher, ghost fart, smoke-smoke of the ghost, excrement of the stars, dust on nose, to blow, corpse’s face powder, corpse’s mushroom, and that which is used for oversleeping. 

Indigenous names for plants, of course, have been around much longer than 300 years. These indigenous names deserve respect and attention, and help keep indigenous languages alive. Could we find a way to tie the past to our shared future? If we can learn Latin, why not learn Anishinaabemowin, the original language of the Mississauga First Nation which is critically eroding. Using Indigenous names would be one step towards reconciliation.



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