I’ve always been fascinated with language, especially when it comes to the names of plants and animals. It makes sense that people would give descriptive names — names based on how the organisms look or how they are used. It’s also understandable that, depending on where you are from, those names could be different. For example, I’ve heard butterprint, buttonweed, pie marker and velvetleaf all used as a common name for the same plant. I’ve also heard horseweed used as the name for the different plants I know as marestail, giant ragweed and field horsetail.
It was back in the 1700s when this potential for confusion inspired Swedish botanist Carl von Linne to encourage the scientific community to devise a standardized naming system for living organisms, going all the way down to the genus and species level. They used Latin for the names because it was no longer an active language, so word meanings were less likely to change. Von Linne’s system was so valuable that today he is known by the Latinized version of his name: Carolus Linnaeus. His role in the binomial system of nomenclature has secured his place in history as the father of modern taxonomy.
The idea was to help scientists worldwide ensure they were talking about the same plant or animal. Scientific names also help categorize living things into their appropriate related categories. As great as the accomplishment was in the scientific community, for most people, the scientific name has no meaning. Most Latin names are difficult to pronounce, and just plain hard to remember. But Latin names can actually be very descriptive and tell an interesting story, too.
Take ragweed, please
Let’s use ragweed as an example. That common name says a lot about how we regard this plant. Its scientific name is Ambrosia artemisiifolia. You might have heard of ambrosia; I’ll circle back to that. Let’s look at the species name, artemisiifolia, first. That name comes from Artemis, the Greek goddess of the forest. Wormwood is a plant that grows in lush woodlands. Wormwoods are known scientifically as Artemisia (for Artemis). Folia is from the Latin word for leaves (think foliage). Wormwood has heavily dissected, lacey-looking leaves, and so does common ragweed. Artemisiifolia simply means leaves that look like wormwood.
Ambrosia means “food of the gods.” Why in the world would you give that name to ragweed? Well, early people couldn’t figure out much good use for the plant, either, yet it grew everywhere. They figured everything had a purpose, but because we humans couldn’t figure out that purpose, it must be food for the gods.
One of my favorite plant name stories is for Jerusalem artichoke. This plant is native to our Illinois landscape, but its common name is more confusing and less descriptive than the scientific name. The plant did not come from Jerusalem, and it’s not in the artichoke family. It’s a sunflower, but instead of having large edible seeds, it has edible tubers. The Jerusalem part of the name is a corruption of a Spanish word for sunflower. Early nonbotanist settlers called most types of edible, fleshy plants artichokes.
The scientific name for Jerusalem artichoke is Helianthus tuberosus. Helianthus comes from Latin root words for sun (helios) and flower (anthus). And of course, tuberosus refers to the edible tuber. How much more descriptive can you get?
We still occasionally find new species, and they need new names. Traditionally, scientific names reflect the discoverer of the organism, a location or physical characteristics. I like how these names tell a story, and I hope we move away from a recent trend of celebrity naming or crowdsourcing when we tell our modern story. To me, the real story is exciting enough.
Dozier is the Illinois state conservationist. Direct comments or questions to email@example.com. The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.