What’s in a Name

The names of plants, both scientific and popular, always convey information, but not consistent information. Some names tell us who discovered a plant. Some are based on words used by earlier or indigenous people to identify the plant. Other names offer descriptions—what the plant looks like, who or what eats or interacts with it, what it smells like, what effect it has on the consumer.

Sometimes, it’s obvious which of these is in play. For example, no one doubts that the stinking carrion flower is named for its scent. Discoverer’s names—as in Banksias or Sturt’s desert pea—are also often clear. But there are a few names that are tremendously misleading, as with the potato. The word potato evolved from the word batatas, which is the Arawak (Taino dialect) word for the sweet potato, which is completely unrelated to the potato. However, though the potato inherited a name that belonged originally to the sweet potato, the scientific Latin name for the sweet potato is Ipomoea batatas, reflecting the sweet potato’s true heritage.

Among the glorious spring wildflowers we were enjoying, the nomenclature seemed almost equally divided between what flowers look like and who found them, though there were a few (such as the trigger plant) named for their actions. Fringed lilies and enamel orchids both looked precisely like what their names implied. At a small shop we visited, I actually found a packet of seeds for the delightful fringed lilies, and was excited to think I might be able to grow them at home. But when I did, finally, return home, I found that these, along with other seeds I’d purchased, were very Australian in nature—that is, they were what I came to call “disaster germinated.” It was not hard to provide “floods” for some of the seeds, but the fringed lilies required forest fires, which are hard to manage in an apartment. (The packet suggested heaping leaves or shredded newspapers on the ground, above where the lily seeds were planted, and then torching the whole lot. Not readily reproducible in a window box.) So while I managed to grow some Aussie flowers, fringed lilies were not among them. But at least I had the photos.

Purple Fringed Lily

Purple Fringed Lily

Purple Enamel Orchid

Purple Enamel Orchid

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Filed under Australia, History, Nature, Science, Travel

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