It is such a foundational act, to give name to. But not all naming is good naming. Naming can be an appropriative act of conquest and overwriting.
~ Robert Macfarlane ~
Before 1735, if a European botanist wanted to specify the plant we know as a tomato, he would write, in Latin: Solanum caule inerme herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incisis, racemis simplicibus. Translation: nightshade [with] weak, green stem, leaves cut into opposite pairs, in simple clusters. In 1735 Carl Linnaeus published the first of twelve editions of his Systema Naturae, his ever-growing classification of plant and animal life. The scientific name for tomato became Solanum lycopersicum. This was the start of binomial nomenclature, identifying the living world with two words instead of a long string of them.
It caught on, needless to say, because here we still are, using his system. So if I want to communicate with a botanist in Shanghai, or Mongolia, or Zanzibar, we can be sure we are speaking of the same plant by using the Latin name rather than the local common name. Very handy. Since this spread was largely fostered by colonialism, it’s also very complicated.
Let’s start with the good. The speckled flower above is a Fritillaria affinis, which means it looks like a dice box, fritillus in Latin, suggesting that Linnaeus was familiar with gambling. In California, its common name is checker lily. In Idaho, it’s chocolate lily. A browner version in California is also called chocolate lily. A different species of fritillary in New York is called checkered lily. All versions are somewhat checkered and in the lily family, Liliaceae (lily-ay-see-ee), so there’s some logic in the confusion.
The flower below is called checkerbloom in California, checker mallow in Oregon. It is a mallow and certainly a bloom, but it’s not checkered. And so far from looking like it’s related to a tiny, checkered dice box floating in dappled woodlands, it looks like snippets of lingerie strewn on a meadow landscape. So, no logic.
You can see why it’s handy to be able to rely on its Latin name, Sidalcea malviflora. The first word marks its relation to two other plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae, the second the fact that the flowers are like other mallows. A name that I am loosely translating as ‘very mallow-like’. However, for most people the translation, while fun to decipher, isn’t important. What’s crucial is having a name that everyone can agree on, however reluctantly, to specify this particular plant.
Sidalcea is the genus name, malviflora the species, which, as its name implies, gets more specific about details, like leaves, flowers, or geography. The photo just above is Sidalcea oregana, the species name telling us that this plant is related to Oregon. But plants don’t recognize state lines, so its range extends into California’s Sierra Nevada, where this photo was taken.
Linnaeus’ classification of plants started with two kingdoms: plantae and animalia. He and subsequent biologists then subdivided them into domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, and sometimes subspecies. Above is Sidalcea calycosa, subspecies rhizomata, which tells us that it spreads by close-to-surface root-like structures called rhizomes.
For everyday botanical life, we don’t need to go further than family, which is an informative category. Everything in the Rosaceae family, for example, is going to share distinct characteristics, which the rose above displays admirably. Showy flowers of five petals and five sepals with a spiral cluster of distinctive stamens in the center. These can be fused into a cup-like formation, seen below in ninebark, Physocarpus malvaceus (leaves are mallow-like), which is also in the rose family. As are the genera Prunus and Rubus, which contain many of our favorite fruits. If Shakespeare had written his poem after Linnaeus, he might have said that a rose by any other name is an almond, a peach, a strawberry, a raspberry, or an apple. The many garden roses with more than five petals are cultivars, having been cultivated or bred to produce more petals.
The twelfth edition of Systema Naturae was 2300 pages. Over his lifetime, Linnaeus named 7,700 plants. He also named all the animals he knew or heard about, for a total of 4,400. Based, as with plants, on physical characteristics, especially reproductive traits. That’s how we became Mammalia (class), Primates (order), Hominidae (family), Homo sapiens (genus and species). And here Linnaeus, in an otherwise rigorously scientific endeavor, did a very unscientific and extremely damaging thing: he classified the Homo sapiens he had named into four different ‘races’: Chinese, African, European, and Native American. He was not the first to do something like this, but he, known as ‘the second Adam’ for his well-researched naming of the plant and animal world, was the most likely to be paid attention to even when he strayed so far from reality.
Other than seeing the indigenous Sami on a plant exploration to Lapland, he never traveled away from Northern Europe. His distinctions weren’t based on any first-hand knowledge of non-Europeans or any actual facts. He based them entirely on hearsay, on what he believed about what he heard, and how he supposed each group operated. Indigenous Americans, for example, were red, proud, and revered tradition. Europeans were white, inventive, and law-abiding. Asians wore loose clothing, were yellow, and sensitive to the point of moodiness in their affairs. Africans were black, relaxed, and ruled by impulse.
These are distinctions with absolutely no factual, scientific basis, and yet the false concept of separate races infects our language to this day. Eighteenth-century white supremacists took up the cause instantly and modern ones are still at it. But even in less noxious hands, it persists. We’re asked for our race on medical and census forms, for example, as if ancestry or a particular shade of skin sort Homo sapiens into different forms of humans. Even nominally sympathetic uses, like “racial disparity in maternal health,” are still locked in this pernicious division.
But even Linnaeus’ most scientific accomplishments give rise to complicated problems. His genius and hard work have given botanists and zoologists worldwide a way to be sure they are talking about the same plant or animal. But the whole idea rose from a colonial mindset. It was taken for granted that an educated European would decide what system and language would be used to classify all living things. A prejudice that was made much worse by his followers, who named “newly discovered” plants with the name of the supposed discoverer, rather than for their own physical traits and structure, as Linnaeus had.
Thus we have bitterroot, above, a plant that grows throughout the western U.S. and Canada. Its nourishing root was a vital staple in the diet of Native Americans for millennia. Its scientific name is Lewisia rediviva, for explorer Merriwether Lewis, the first European American to see it and take some home in 1806. But, and I quote myself from my essay on bitterroot, here are some of the people who knew bitterroot for at least 10,000 years before Lewis:
The Washoe (California, Nevada). Owens Valley Paiute (California), Northern Paiute (California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon), Southern Paiute (Utah). Northern Ute (Utah), Gosiute (Nevada, Utah). Western Shoshone (Idaho, Nevada, California, Utah), Northern Shoshone (Idaho, Wyoming, Utah), Eastern Shoshone (Wyoming), Salish (Idaho). The Upper Nlaka’pamux, southern Shuswap, Okanagan-Colville, and southern Kootenay of British Columbia. North of bitterroot’s blooming range, the Nlaka’pamux, Lillooet, northern Shuswap, and northern Kootenay peoples traded for the roots.
A similar list could be compiled for every plant in every region of the Americas, as well as all of Africa, Australia, and Asia, and parts of Europe. Common and historical names for plants still exist everywhere, so tradition and lore are not necessarily lost. Given the 7,000 or so languages spoken throughout the world, I haven’t come across anyone suggesting we abandon the Latin nomenclature. But there are calls for renaming plants within that taxonomy to better reflect their geographical or biological realities rather than colonizers. Since the advent of advanced genetics, plants are regularly being reclassified and renamed based on their DNA. So this is a good time to address these concerns. Especially as there is a worldwide call to include and rely on indigenous voices, practices, and knowledge in the shaping of ecological policy.
These issues arose recently in an unexpected way on, of all places, an online native plant forum. Amidst the usual chatter about plant identification and gardening, several indigenous members opened discussions on native plant history and ecology in California. Both are very much within the forum organization’s purview. The responses they got ranged from delighted interest to eye-popping obtuseness to downright racism.
Naming has power. Just look at creation stories. Not only naming things but also phenomena, experiences, history. California is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world with 100 still-living indigenous languages. Its colonial history was a long, brutal genocide. The indigenous forum members weren’t insisting that the Wiyot word, for example, for the nutritionally and medicinally important elderberry — ti’ma — be used. The message I got was ‘we were here, we knew, we named, we took care for millennia, we have wisdom to share.’ One of the responses snidely accused a poster of “performative wokeness.” When another shared his people’s name for a particular plant, he was tartly reminded to stick to Latin names by one person, while another moaned about everyone “having an agenda these days.”
It went on and on, with good and very bad responses. I missed some of the most pernicious because they were removed by the moderators before they closed the forum to regroup. They later reopened with new rules. This is not a foray into the joys and sorrows of online forums, but the experience is a vivid example of how Linnaeus’ ongoing legacy, while helpful, can be painfully complex right to this day.
I recently posted the photo above on Facebook. A friend commented: “‘Common Pacific pea,’ as we humans have named it. As the Creator might have named it, were Creator as obsessed with ‘naming’ as we are: ‘Miraculous and exquisitely beautiful creation of which I am capable of providing without end.’” I wrote back that I thought this a perfect name for every plant, though it would be awkward to name all 8.7 million species with the same lengthy name. So I remain grateful for binomial nomenclature. I like the sometimes nutty common names we give plants. I treasure the voices sharing the wisdom of their traditional knowledge. We are all grappling with the same glorious task — how to express and protect the miraculous world around us.
(Tomato photo at the top by Immo Wegman via Unsplash)
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