What’s in a Name?

Stick with me on this.

Scientific names are important. They bring order and precision to Earth’s millions of life forms. Take the flowers in this post. A botantist would look and think:

Family:   Pyrolaceae
Genus:    Pyrola
Species:  asarifolia 

Family, as the name suggests, includes a group of plants that are closely related, that share many things in common. Aunts, cousins, grandparents.

Genus is like your last name. It identifies the smaller group that you belong to. Parents and siblings.

And Species? That’s like your first name. It points (most of the time) to a specific individual.

But life isn’t tidy. (Still with me?) Even science changes its mind. Now apparently all the Pyrolas have been moved from Pyrolaceae (the wintergreen family) to Ericaceae (the heath family), in with the rhododendrons and blueberries.

Then toss the “common” names into the mix, the ones we use instead of all that botanical gobbledegook. You might recognize this little plant with its elephant-trunk flowers as common pink wintergreen.

It’s a bit much at times. Which is sad, because there is much enjoyment in getting to know your neighbours — at whatever level you are comfortable with.

On my rambles, I spotted several patches of round, leathery leaves. Further on a flash of pink against a rotting stump — a slender stalk of unfolding blossoms.

No names run through my thoughts at that moment. Nothing is lost in translation.

The wonder is wordless.


Common pink wintergreen   Pyrola asarifolia

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7 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Excellent post. I think our love of ascribing names to things comes in part from the Victorian collectors. It’s a way of packaging something up neatly, and the natural world is not a neat place. I recently had a conversation about this at work in fact. My assistant was keen to learn the names of as many plants as he could, down to species, and to set them in the context of the others he saw (we’re ecologists in case you were wondering). I posited that as in-species genetic diversity is so important we should be thinking more at level even finer than species. My boss on the otherhand felt that we should be thinking at the genus level, that identifying things to species was an unnecessary and outdated level of abstraction that tells us very little extra that’s useful about the natural world when our impacts on it occur at the whole system scale. The poor lad didn’t know which way to turn or which of us to listen to!

    Either way I’d say the issue is needlessly academic. For the ordinary person looking at a wild flower, or an insect, or a whole forest or ocean, the main thing is to appreciate its beauty, complexity and importance. Sometimes knowing the names of things, and the stories behind those names, opens up a whole new level of appreciation. Once one can identify a few things one feels more engaged with what one is seeing – and the complex whole is less intimidating. Once, when people were still tribal hunter-gatherers, everyone would have known the name and relation of all the species in their environment (as tribal people still do today). Now we are more specialised, people feel an expectation to ‘be’ something (an ecologist, an accountant, a mechanic) combined with a need to be an expert in said area (often tied to one’s ongoing job prospects). We forget that outside one’s chosen specialism there is much to be gained from being interested without being an expert and that appreciating what we see is enough.

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    1. Paul, thank you for your most thoughtful and bang-on comment. My background is also science so nomenclature and classification played a large role in that. But for most there is little of interest there. (That said, a very good teacher can make it so.) Awareness and understanding of our world, of its complexity and of our complete dependence on it is key. Words will follow.

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  2. In the world of contemporary construction, almost every project has a garden, landscape and plant component. As the process of design, construction and maintenance unfolds, the use of scientific names is essential, especially when there are people from different cultures and continents involved in that process.

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    1. We’d struggle with the means of telling things apart, for many reasons as you say. For some the pleasure comes from categorizing and organizing, for some deciding between monkey flower or snapdragons, and for others just the chance to enjoy the wordless beauty.

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  3. Hi Sally, thanks for clearing that up about family, genus and species. I paint a lot of flowers in my neighborhood and I wish I knew even the common name. Not knowing, I have to say something like Yellow Flowers in Glass Vase. I admire that you know the scientific names too.

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    1. Glad I could help. I debated whether to add scientific names to my posts. I finally decided in favour of doing that as different readers look for different info. As for titling your lovely pieces — would your library have flower books you could consult? Local gardening/natural history groups are helpful too.

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