Even before we lived on the Eastern Shore, Rick and I came over to the Adkins plant sales. On one such visit, Rick bought me a thick book: Botanical Latin by William T. Stearn. I was flattered, and maybe a bit confused, that he thought I was scholarly enough to enjoy such a book. That book and I have been staring each other down across the space behind my desk ever since. Finally, this spring, I started browsing through it. Over the years, I had memorized a few botanic names of plants without much thought to the meaning of the names. It was just a way to show off. Maybe now it was time to actually learn something, and I have this informative book. I did entertain myself, learning a few sensible words and confusing myself with a few others. Then Jenny said we could try writing something for volunteer credit during this down year. So, here is my attempt to share some of the reasons behind the names of a few of our favorite native plants.
Let’s start with an easy one. Physocarpus opulifolius: ninebark. Easy because all the parts are descriptive of something we can observe. And, it’s fun to say. Physo means bladder-like. Carpus is fruit, opuli means maple-like, and folius is leaved. I’m no taxonomist, but it seems like there are many plants with bladder-like fruits. Why this particular genus got the nod, I don’t know. In any case, learning this name made me more attentive to the features of my ninebarks. The common name ninebark is more obvious, especially in winter when the interesting bark stands out. Ninebark is a wonderful shrub that seems to thrive on neglect.
Impatiens capensis: jewelweed. Impatiens means impatient and refers to the way the ripe seedpods burst if they are touched. I learned from a recent episode of Mary Roach’s “A Way to Garden” podcast that jewelweeds living close together germinate synchronously in spring. They thus outcompete other plants, and because there are more seedlings than nutrients, only the most fit survive. If you are intrigued by the notion of plants signaling each other, I recommend this TED talk by Suzanne Simard. Capensis means “of the cape,” in this case the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Nicolaas Meerburgh, an 18th-century Dutch mathematician and botanist, got naming rights, and he thought jewelweed was from there. As you know, a plant’s genus can change at the drop of a nucleic acid’s hat. But the species name stays forever. The lesson here is, if you are ever so fortunate as to discover a new species, put great care into selecting the name. Which leads me to one more tangent before I move on. A recently discovered super-cute pacific octopus was named Opisthoteuthis adorabilis. Awwww!
Muhlenbergia capillaris: hairawn muhlygrass. The Muhlenbergia genus honors 18th-century American clergyman and botanist Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg. While stalking grasses, he also discovered the bog turtle, which, I just learned from a Woodland Wildlife Wednesday webinar, is not doing well in Maryland. This is an example of genus renaming. Lamarck named it (the grass, not the turtle) Stipa capillaris. That got corrected in the early 19th century without the aid of gene sequencers. Capillaris means hairlike. Indeed, there are mornings when my hair looks exactly like that.
Liriodendron tulipifera: American tulip tree. Locally famous as the logo for Adkins Arboretum. Lirio is from Greek leirium, for lily. Dendron is Greek for tree. Tulip is obvious, although with a tall, mature tree, you may have to wait until the flowers fall off to see them. The suffix -fer means bearing. Hence, Liriodendron tulipifera means tulip-bearing lily tree. Pretty straightforward, although the lily-ness escapes me. I thought lilies have bulbs and parallel veins. Maybe the lily name is symbolic; maybe Linnaeus just envisioned a lily there. You can learn much more about Liriodendron tulipifera from Sylvan Kaufman’s excellent video.
Quercus alba: white oak. Quercus is derived from the ancient proto-Indo-European word perkwu, which meant oak. The age of its name is, in itself, awesome, imparting even more dignity to the tree. If you have ever shopped for white paint, you know there are a few hundred (I may be exaggerating) shades. There are almost as many options for botanical white. Stearn describes 37 choices, plus variations, from niveus (snow-white) as the purest white, to cretaceous (chalk-white) for dull white, to dealbatus (whitened) to mean slightly covered with white upon a darker ground. Albus, our white oak white, is dead white. But why white when it looks gray? And there are at least as many words for various shades of gray, my favorite being elbidus, meaning “saddest gray.” Evidently, white refers to the seasoned wood, which tends toward white and is paler than other oak woods. Oaks are Doug Tallamy’s favorite trees. In his books, he explains that oaks are one of our keystone species, delivering more ecosystem services than any other tree genus. If you want to plant a tree, consider an oak.
by Sue Hauser