Binomial Nomenclature

by Green Deane

in Blog

Most of us go by two names. So do plants. That’s Binomial Nomenclature. That is both good and bad. It’s good in that two people on different sides of the earth can be sure they are talking about the same plant. It’s bad in that there is a HUGE resistance among beginners to learn the terms. Any suggestion they do is with met with an attitude on par with “you don’t love me” and “I’m going to take my toys and go home.” Some reluctance is understandable: We all have ancestors who foraged for wild plants and they didn’t learn binomial nomenclature, nor did they need to.

When learning to forage was something passed down from generation to generation all you needed to know was to identify the plant and what your group called it. Even now learning wild edibles with someone is much faster than from a book. Like our ancestors, when studying with someone you really don’t need to know the scientific name, or the tribal one for that matter…. until you need to communicate with someone. Then the name becomes important.

There are some 18 plants in the United States called “pig weed.” Some are edible, some can kill you. That can make knowing which one is being discussed rather important. I had a friend and his family get quite ill because in discussions it was not understood two different pig weeds were being talked about. One you could just sweat the leaves and eat. The others had to be boiled in changes of water. It was not a fatal mistake but it could have been.

The first name of a plant is the genus it is in (much like an extended family or your last name.) The second name is the plant itself, like your first name except only one plant has it. Here in Florida, for example, there are several different yams, in the genus Dioscorea. D. Bulbifera, D. Alata, and D. Oppositifolia. One can make you very sick, one you have to boil once, one you can eat raw. Saying there are edible yams in Florida will not do. Having the right name can mean you are here tomorrow to read more blogs.

Now that we have established the value of Binomial Nomenclature, there is a dark side. What a plant is called is a matter of opinion. That opinion is based on details and sometimes a huge serving of ego. Plant names can change. Sometimes it is because someone makes a very good observation and the plant should be rename, or even put into a different genus. That has happened with Paper Mulberries and Mexican Tea. Other times the difference can be minute, literally one gene different which to people who find that significant is… well…significant. Personally, I am not that detailed of a person, which is why I forage plants not mushrooms and do just a few grasses — maddening to identify. However, my argument is you should learn the scientific names of the plants you are interested in because it can save you life, or that of a loved one.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Josh October 1, 2015 at 06:13

I totally agree. Learning the binomial names of plants has made it so much easier to look up information on that plant, be it online or in books. Relying exclusively on the local names of plants can be ambiguous, and as you rightly point out, may have more serious consequences as well.

Keep up the great work!


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