Reflections in Nature: There’s meaning to names we give plants, animals

One day while paddling on Stephen Foster Lake, I noticed flowers growing on the shore that I did not recognize. I began to paddle even closer to get a better look. To me the flower of the plant appeared as a turtle’s head, which made me fairly sure that was the plant’s name.

Later that evening I checked in a flower book to be sure of the name, and I was correct.

This got me thinking about the names we have given to the plants and animals with which we share this planet. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know that I like to look up the scientific names of the plants and wildlife that I write about. The names are usually in Latin or Greek, which I find hard to pronounce.

The scientific names are based on what is known as the binomial system that was devised by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus in 1753. Linnaeus is known as the Father of Modern Taxonomic Botany. Prior to this time, there had been no accepted or uniform methods of naming plants and other living things.

The first part of the scientific name, which is known as the genus name, always begins with a capital letter. A genus name can be used only once within the animal kingdom and cannot be used as a genus name for another group, such as spiders, insects, etc.

Although I find the scientific names interesting, the common and local names given to birds, plants and animals are definitely easier to pronounce and a help when identifying a plant or animal. For instance, in the bird world, we identify many birds by their calls: bobwhite, whip-poor-will, towhee, mourning dove, killdeer, etc. Our nighthawk is often called the nightjar because of its loud, rapid, churring calls at night. Its name comes from the fact that this bird is active at dusk, and, while in flight, resembles a small hawk.

Others are named for their distinctive features. Great-horned owls have tufts of feathers that appear as horns; ringneck pheasants have white rings around their necks and the bluebirds are named for their color.

We also use folklore in naming the birds and animals in the wild kingdom. The nighthawk is also known as the goatsucker in Europe since it was believed to have sucked milk from goats at night. Its genus name is Caprimulgidae, which comes from two Latin words: caper, meaning goat and mulgeo, meaning to milk or suck.

Plants have also been named for what they do and what they appear as. Through the years, asters have been called Christmas daisies; however, the word aster comes from the Latin and Greek word for star. The cucumber tree’s name comes from its fruit, which is two and a half to three inches long, with the appearance of a cucumber.

Our quaking aspen’s name comes about because the slightest breeze sets the leaves into constant motion. The staghorn sumac was named due to its rich velvety branching twigs that appear as a male deer’s antlers in velvet. Hercules club is a small tree, with many names.

A few are prickly ash, prickly elder, toothache tree and shotbush. From the names, one can tell that the tree has either prickles or thorns on the trunk and branches. The reason for being called the toothache-tree is because, at one time, it was used to relieve the pain of a toothache. The inner bark was rolled into a wad the size of a bean and then placed on the aching tooth and chewed until the pain ceased. The trunk of the tree appears as if it could be used as a club; hence, the name Hercules club. Although the tree has many names, the name I use is the devil’s walking stick.

The following plants were named for what they did: the heal all bush refers to the healing powers of the plant’s leaf; Joe-pye-weed was named after an Indian in Colonial New England, who used the plant to cure typhoid fevers.

In another book, I read that the Indian word for typhoid was “jopi.” Perhaps this is where the Indian’s name Joe-pye came from. In the Southern Appalachian Mountains, this plant is known as queen of the meadow.

Many plants were named for what they resemble.

The leaf of the hepatica (liver wort) is shaped as a liver; spiderwort is named because its leaves, which are somewhat twisted at the joints, resemble the spreading legs of a spider; the name for the milkweed plant comes from the milky white sap that oozes from the plant when injured; the leaves of the rattlesnake plant have markings resembling those on the skin of a rattlesnake; and the name of cattail comes from the shape of the plant that some say has the looks and feels of a cat’s tail.

The name Dutchman’s breeches comes about from the flower appearing as white pantaloons hanging upside down on plant’s stem; bloodroot’s name comes from the deep reddish brown or orange sap that comes from the roots of the plant; Skunk cabbage has an offensive odor, which has been compared to that of a skunk; and the Mayapple’s name comes from the fact that the fruit ripens in May.

Plants have also been named for how they were used. The teasel, which was brought to this country from Europe, was used extensively to “tease” or comb the nap of woolen cloth. Another name for the teasel was gypsy comb; the bedstraw’s name comes from the fact that the American Pioneers used the plant as mattress filler because the stems remained flexible even after being dried. The bedstraw plants have an odor somewhat like hay and were useful in repelling fleas from the bed; soapwort’s name comes from the fact that when the plant is bruised and added to water, the result is a delightful bubbly lather used as soap; jewelweed’s name comes from rain water beading up on the leaves, giving the appearance of tiny jewels.

Another name for this plant is touch-me-not, and this name comes from the seed pod, which when ripe will explode in your hand.

There are many more birds, plants and animals that have names that fit, but none more than a plant that grows in New Jersey.

In December 1774, the English ship Greybound bound for Philadelphia with a cargo of tea, sailed up the Delaware River. Knowing that other tea ships going to Boston, New York and Philadelphia had been turned back, the captain decided to unload his tea in nearby Greenwich, New Jersey. Here the tea was stored in the cellar of a sympathetic Tory named Sam Bowen.

However, the secret leaked out, and the patriots responded. On the night of December 22, 40 men disguised as Indians stormed the house and burned the tea. The Greenwich was the sixth tea party that had occurred up and down the East coast where tea was destroyed. The Greenwich tea party was the last and least famous of these parties.

New Jersey tea is a low, upright shrub that grows to three feet tall. The leaves give the entire plant a grayish cast. Small white flowers grow on the branch tips. The dried leaves make an excellent tea that was very popular during the Revolutionary War period.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his podcasts on the outdoors at www.onemaningreen.com.


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