What’s in a Name?

In approximately 100,000 years since we began to speak, we’ve classified and described plants. Carl Linnaeus devised a system of naming using two Latin names for each plant — binomial nomenclature — which has endured as the scientific standard for all forms of life.

In a time of unprecedented global travel and information sharing, binomial nomenclature makes communication about plants across languages and communities simple. A plant recognized by science as one species may bear many different names across local communities, according to variation in use or context, and may be divided into sub-species indistinguishable to an academic expert.

The downside of this nomenclature is that subtlety of local knowledge is lost if a Latin name supplants, instead of augments, traditional and common names.

When I discover a new plant, I admire the shape of the leaf — the way the leaves connect to the stem, and how they are arranged. I notice particular shapes and relative placement of petals, sepals, and bracts. Names help me bring all of these components together, and help me recall and compare plants. The Latin, English, and local-language names of plants, often bestowed over different time periods, hold clues to how different people viewed and used plants.

Knowing a name brings beguiling comfort, but I have to remind myself that name-knowledge doesn’t replace careful attention. Do wild roses smell less sweet to a child or a foreigner who has yet to learn the word? Perhaps such people are better equipped to get to know an individual rose, without the distractions that come with knowledge of a name.

These distractions, however, also lend richness, by bringing in the experience of many others who have loved and been fascinated by plants. Compelled by such fascination, they enshrined their own way of seeing, in a name. Learning those names is an initiation into that fold, and a crucial act of participation in seeing this knowledge persist into the future.

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