Plant names and origins

Published 6:29 pm Saturday, July 14, 2018



By Terry Rector

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I’m not one to memorize many taxonomic, i.e. scientific, names for plants.  I do understand and appreciate proper taxonomy is the only way to positively identify a species and to totally distinguish between species.

And the common names most of us use for plants sometimes lead to confusion.  For instance, what is milkweed? There are many species that have latex or something similar inside their stems. But milkweed in one place is not necessarily the same plant as milkweed one state or three counties over.

When I first moved here 35 years ago, there were three related but different soybean weeds locally called coffeeweed in different parts of Mississippi. Eventually all three spread nearly statewide and over time we unofficially adopted three different common names for them. And that’s the point; the Latin taxonomic names are official among scientists worldwide and our localized common names are unofficial.

Like most folks, I speak common names and only look up the Latin version when I need to.

Some common names we use for plants are self-explanatory, such as poison ivy, and others don’t take much thinking to figure out, ala morning glory. But some very common plants have names that are just not obvious as to why somebody somewhere first called them so.

Consider dandelion. It concerns a lion but not necessarily a dandy one.  The word came from the French language term dent-de-lion, which translates to “the lion’s tooth.” It is the jagged edges of the plant’s leaves reminiscent of a lion’s teeth that inspired the name.

A few common plant names include the word bane and that word is defined as something annoying, troublesome or damaging or even causing death as a poison. Two common plants with bane in their names come to mind, but the definition fits one but not the other. The plant that was originally thought to get rid of fleas is fleabane. There’s common fleabane and daisy fleabane and neither of them has any effect on fleas, but the original name stuck.

The other one does live up to the poisonous trait and it is one of my all-time favorite weed names. It is hemp dogbane and requires two explanations. First, the hemp got into the name of this perennial plant because Native Americans used the bark in strips to make twine and nets much as they did with the species known as hemp.

The dogbane portion of the name came about because somebody said the plant poisoned his dog. And indeed the species is toxic to many animals including grazing cattle, sheep and wildlife. Luckily, as with most deadly plants, grazing animals don’t want to eat the foul-tasting weed and will only do so if there’s nothing else to eat.

Then there are plant names for which a person’s common sense might denote the wrong reason for the right name. Goatweed is not a delicacy to goats. It is toxic to goats. But the plant has an odor. It smells like a goat.

Terry Rector is spokesman for the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District.