18 Jul 2015

Learn Latin Names of Common Plants

By Helen Mason

A recent trip to Ireland reinforced for me the importance of learning Latin names of common plants.

Of course I recognized my old friend Taraxacum sighted here at Mellifont Abbey in County Louth — and in numerous fields. Although we in North America don't think of dandelions as an invasive species, they are native to Eurasia and have been spread around the world by settlers who likely planted the seeds to make use of the plant's many medicinal and nutritional uses.

Dandelion at Mellifont Abbey. (Helen Mason photo)

I also knew that this bird fishing in the waters outside Ashford Castle in County Mayo had to be a member of the heron family. It's a grey heron (Ardea cinerea), a species native to temperate parts of Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa.

The herons around my Georgian Bay cottage are great blue herons (Ardea herodias) — same genus, different species.

Grey heron fishing in County Mayo. (Helen Mason photo)

What puzzled me, however, was a flower I found while exploring County Clare's Craggaunowen, a tourist site with re-creations of the various types of housing used in Ireland's past — from a Crannog or lake-dwelling from the Bronze age, to a ring fort from the 4th and 5th Centuries, to 1400s-era castle.

Walking through the woodlands below the fort, I admired this blossom.

The Irish jack in the pulpit: Arum maculatum. (Helen Mason photo)

Not recognizing it, but thinking it might be related to something I did, I asked the guide.

"Jack in the pulpit," she responded, "sometimes called lords-and-ladies."

This is where common names can run us into trouble. To me, a jack in the pulpit is a shy blossom that covers is reproductive parts.

The Canadian jack in the pulpit: Arisaema triphyllum. (Helen Mason photo)

In fact, these two jack in the pulpits belong to the same family but not the same genus or species.

The Irish plant is Arum maculatum, a woodland species common to Europe, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Like many plants, it has a number of common names — snakeshead, adder's root, Adam and Eve, and lords-and-ladies, as well as jack in the pulpit.

The Canadian plant is Arisaema triphyllum, a native of moist eastern North American woodlands. Like its Irish distant relative, this jack in the pulpit has other names, including bog onion, brown dragon, Indian turnip, and American wake robin.

Common names change from locale to locale. They can provide interesting information about the use of the plant or the social history of the namer. The Latin term is unique. It identifies one genus and species, and only that one.

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