When I was a boy, world was better spot What was so was so, what was not was not Now, I am a man, world have changed a lot Some things nearly so, others nearly not There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know Very often find confusion In conclusion, I concluded long ago In my head are many facts That, as a student, I have studied to procure In my head are many facts Of which I wish I was more certain, I was sure... Is a puzzlement "A Puzzlement", from 'The King and I', Oscar Hammerstein & Richard Rodgers, 1950.
In the Garden, things aren’t always as they seem. There are many plants with widely known “common” names but very different scientific names. Some examples are legacy issues. Europeans knew a group of native plants called geraniums, which became accepted as the genus, Geranium.* Related plants introduced from South Africa, plants that became horticulturally very important, were also called geraniums, at least when first discovered. When botanists decided those plants merited their own group, the genus was “split” and the African plants were pulled out (we say, segregated) into the “segregate genus” Pelargonium.
Other instances of multiple names are simply based on important plants having colloquial names in differing areas. Oaks, which constitute the botanical genus Quercus, are given the common name Robles in Mexico. Wheat is classified as Triticum. From region to region and language to language, plants will have two or more widely-known common names, each possibly different from the scientific name. Zea, the botanical name for the plant Americans call “corn,” is “maize” in England, where “corn” is the plant Americans call “wheat.” Common names can be an annoyance, generating a Babel of confusion, which is one of many reasons botanists prefer using scientific names.
Most are not such an issue, really; but a few sow on-going confusion, with Lotus as the poster child. Decades ago I accompanied Huntington docent Priscilla Beatty, as an observer on a school tour she led at the Norton Simon Museum. Priscilla’s first stop was a large painting of Lotus (i.e. the plant with the scientific name Nelumbo.)
She asked her small group of 4th graders if they had ever heard of Lotus. A young boy of Asian heritage immediately spoke up – “yes, my father has lotus.” Well, that set a true tête-à-tête in motion. Priscilla, delighted with the prospect of engaging the students in a walk along the path of cultural heritage, launched into a discussion about mud and flowers and purity that left the boy totally frustrated. After a bit, he spoke up…. “no, no, Lotus…, it’s a computer program.”
I have the same question for you. Have you ever heard of Lotus? I don’t mean lotus in small, normal letters, but Lotus in italics, capitalized. Perhaps not. Lotus is a puzzlement…, because Botanists have rules, arcane internationally-negotiated rules for naming plants.
Core to plant names is “first come, first served.” Beginning with Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum, 1753, and barring international votes otherwise, the first valid publication of a scientific name rules. Linnaeus himself assigned the Latinized word Lotus to members of the bean family. At the time, that was no surprise; the Greeks had long used the word for a group of small woody plants in the bean family. Look at the photograph below. To a botanist, that is a Lotus.
But “lotus” (as an English word) is the Western common name for the plant called lian hua in China, rōtasu in Japan, and kamal in India – the plant Westerners often imagine as “sacred lotus’ because of its many associations with Buddhism and Hinduism. When I hear someone say Lotus, I have to stop and wonder whether the word was spoken in italics or in awe.
Perhaps not a poster child, but a taste of confusion comes in the case of nasturtium. In italics, as a Latinized botanical term, Nasturtium is a genus of somewhat weedy, white-flowered herbs in the mustard family, the best-known example being watercress, Nasturtium officinale. The name is well applied, being derived from “nose” and “twist” – referencing their piquant mustardy taste that “twists your nose.” But as the screenshot below demonstrates, a plant commonly called nasturtium is the very different horticultural favorite, the colorful, vining Tropaeolum majus, native to South America.
Perhaps these plants were called nasturtiums because they are edible, and have a bit of the same peppery flavor of mustards. But it’s a shame we didn’t adopt the generic name Linnaeus selected as a common name for these plants. He imagined the peltate leaves as shields, and the inflated flowers as blood-stained helmets, selecting a name suggesting poles Romans piled with enemy weapons and armour as trophies (tropaeum, from tropaion, the Greek root of our word trophy). Gory, but gnifty.
Oh, once the opposition was completely opposed
To all the supposition that was generally supposed
But now the superstitions that were thought to be imposed
Are seen by composition to be slightly decomposed. Pogo
*Botanical names (and animal names also) are Latinized, a tradition that goes back to reliance on Latin for publications by early European scholars. The format of a scientific name groups related plants in a genus, then specifies the name of each kind (each species) with an accompanying epithet – i.e. Quercus robur (English oak). Regardless as to the linguistic source of a generic or specific name, the epithets obey rules of Latin (loosely) and are thus italicized. The tree that yields chocolate nibs, for example, bears the scientific name Theobroma cacao, “theo-broma” from the Greek for “drink of the gods” and “cacao” as a Latinized adaptation of the Nahuatl (Aztecan) cacaua, the base for cacahuatl, the indigenous word for cacao beans.
Italicizing turns out to be convenient, allowing people to quickly find the names of plants being treated. Most importantly, the rules are international, which makes plant names the same, regardless as to what language is used for a publication.