Reflections on plant names

misnomers and misrepresentations

Photo by Kerry Howard

I marvel at some of the English common names that our local plants have acquired. Some are fanciful (and a bit silly), such as mist-maiden and shy maiden. At least one is totally misleading: skunk cabbage is not very cabbage-y and not at all skunky; in fact, we enjoy its lovely sweet smell that wafts over some of the swampy trails. A misnomer on all counts.

Other misnomers include several species whose English name included the word ‘grass’, none of which is a true grass or even related to true grasses. There’s cotton-grass, so common in many bogs, and arrow-grass, a much rarer type in wetlands. At least both of those have narrow leaves with parallel veins—characteristics shared with grasses—so the misnomer is not too wild. That’s not the case, however, for scurvy grass, a little member of the mustard family that’s very common in saline meadows; it has no grass-like features. And then there’s so-called grass-of-Parnassus; its taxonomic classification may be debated but never comes close to real grasses. This is an ancient misnomer based on a plant growing on Mt Parnassus in Greece, but the mistaken name has apparently petrified in place.  Interesting…how long old mistakes stay with us!

Perhaps the English names that most annoy me are those that are ‘false’. Here are a few of them:

–false lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatatum). This plant does not resemble the real lily of the valley of our gardens. The leaves have a different shape and the tiny flowers are borne on an upright stalk, not dangling like little bells under the curved leaves. Sometimes this species is called ‘deer heart’, from the shape of the leaves, or mayflower, which is a translation of the genus name; either alterative is an improvement over ‘false’ anything.

–false hellebore (Veratrum viride). This is a goofy name for this member of the lily family on two counts. It looks quite unlike the original hellebore (Helleborus) of Eurasia, which has showy flowers, a different growth form, a different leaf shape and venation, and is not even in the same taxonomic family. So, to apply that name is inappropriate in the first place. Then to call it ‘false’ is a double insult. One field guide suggests an alternative name of corn lily, and the tasseled inflorescence vaguely recalls the tops of corn stalks. Is that better?

–false huckleberry (Menziesia ferruginea). Sometimes it’s also called false azalea or fool’s huckleberry. I have no idea what the imagined resemblance to azalea may have been; I see none. The plant does share with real huckleberry two features: both are shrubs and the flower shape is similar. And they are classified in the same family. But the flower color is different (orange vs pinkish), the leaves are quite different, and the fruit of this species is a dry capsule rather than a succulent berry. One field guide simply calls it ‘rusty Menziesia’, a translation of its Latin name, which at least avoids falsity and foolishness.

–Cooley’s false buttercup (Kumlienia cooleyae). Formerly, this plant was classified with the ‘true’ buttercups (Ranunculus), but taxonomists decided it deserved its own genus. OK. But that doesn’t make it ‘false’ in any way; it’s just a different kind of buttercup. One might argue that it was ‘false’ when it was still in the genus Ranunculus, just because it was somewhat different, but now that it’s in its own genus, it is surely not false. Why not simply Cooley’s buttercup?

–sticky false asphodel (Triantha glutinosa).  This North American species was formerly classified in the genus Tofieldia, which occurs in Eurasia as well as North America.  The original asphodel was a flower of the mythical Elysian Fields (thought to be inhabited by the souls of the dead); just how and why the name was applied to this species is not clear. Again, while our species was classified as Tofieldia, it was perceived as different and arguably ‘false’ (from a taxonomist’s perspective). But now it is its own thing, it’s not false at all. In any case, an alternative, more suitable name might be sticky bog asphodel or just sticky asphodel.

–false toadflax (Geocaulon lividum). It is unrelated to the plant called yellow toadflax (sometimes called butter-and-eggs) and looks nothing at all like that. So it is not ‘false’ in any sense. One of its several alternative names, such as timberberry, might be suitable.

The epithet of ‘false’ turns up occasionally among the mosses and fungi too, for supposed look-alikes. There, it serves as a warning, of sorts, I suppose…’Don’t confuse this with that.’ Couldn’t there be a better way to make the distinctions?

Taxonomists often transfer a species from one genus to a new genus (as happened in examples above), or move a species from one genus to another established one, sometimes eliminating one genus altogether when all of its species are transferred elsewhere. But somehow, the English names seem to be locked in, even when they are misleading.

We all have heard the expression: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’  It seems to me that these persistent cases of poor English names similarly reflect (among other possibilities) the inadequate observation ability of the individual who first applied the name. But the continued use of ridiculously inappropriate names is hard to explain.

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