Reflections in Nature: There is meaning to names we give plants, animals | News, Sports, Jobs


One day while paddling on Stephen Foster Lake, I saw flowers growing on the shore that I did not recognize. I started paddling even closer to see better. To me, the flower of the plant appeared as a tortoise head, which made me pretty sure that was the name of the plant.

Later in the evening I checked in a flower book to be sure of the name, and I was right.

This made me think about the names we have given to the plants and animals with which we share this planet. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know I like to look up the scientific names of the plants and wildlife I’m writing about. The names are usually in Latin or Greek, which I find difficult to pronounce.

The scientific names are based on what is known as the binomial system devised by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus in 1753. Linnaeus is known as the Father of Modern Taxonomic Botany. By this time, there had been no accepted or uniform methods of naming plants and other living things.

The first part of the scientific name, known as the genus name, always begins with a capital letter. A genus name can only be used once within the animal kingdom and can not be used as a genus name for another group, such as spiders, insects, etc.

Although I find the scientific names interesting, the common and local names given to birds, plants and animals are definitely easier to pronounce and a help in identifying a plant or animal. For example, in the bird world, we identify many birds by their calls: bobwhite, whip-arm-will, towhee, red deer, killdeer, and so on. Our night hawk is often called the nightjar because of its loud, fast, shrill cries at night. The name comes from the fact that this bird is active in the twilight, and, while in flight, resembles a small hawk.

Others are named for their distinctive features. Large horned owls have tufted feathers that appear like horns; ring-necked pheasants have white rings around the neck and the bluebirds are named after their color.

We also use folklore when naming the birds and animals in the wild kingdom. The night hawk is also known in Europe as the goatsucker, because it was believed that he suckled milk from goats at night. The genus name is Caprimulgidae, which comes from two Latin words: hairdresser, which means goat and mulgeo, which means milk or suckling.

Plants are also named after what they do and how they appear. Over the years, asters are called Christmas daisies; however, the word aster comes from the Latin and Greek word for star. The name of the cucumber tree comes from its fruit, which is two and a half to three inches long, with the appearance of a cucumber.

The name of our trembling aspen comes from the fact that the least wind puts the leaves in constant motion. The staghorn sumac was named because of its rich velvety twig branches that appear like a male heart its antlers in velvet. Hercules club is a small tree, with many names.

A few are stinging ashes, stinging elder, toothache tree and shoot bush. From the names one can say that the tree has either spikes or thorns on the trunk and branches. The reason for being called the toothache tree is because it was once used to relieve the pain of a toothache. The inner bark was rolled into a wad the size of a bone and then placed on the sore tooth and chewed until the pain stopped. The trunk of the tree looks like it could be used as a club; Hence, the name Hercules club. Although the tree has many names, the name I use is the walking stick of the devil.

The following plants were named after what they did: half each bush refers to the healing powers of the leaf of the plant; Joe-pye-weed was named after an Indian in Colonial New England who used the plant to cure typhus.

In another book I read that the Indian word was for typhus “jopi.” Maybe this is where the Indian name Joe-pye came from. In the Southern Appalachians, this plant is known as the queen of the meadow.

Many plants were named after what they look like.

The leaf of the hepatica (liverwort) has the shape of a liver; spiderwort is called because its leaves, which are slightly twisted at the joints, resemble the spreading legs of a spider; the name for the milk plant comes from the milky white juice that sprouts from the plant in injuries; the leaves of the rattlesnake plant have signs similar to those on the skin of a rattlesnake; and the name of cattail comes from the shape of the plant that some say has the appearance and feel of a cat’s tail.

The name Dutchman’s Breeze comes from the flower that appears as white pantaloons that hang underneath the stem of the plant; blood root its name comes from the deep reddish brown or orange juice that comes from the roots of the plant; Skunk cabbage has an offensive odor, similar to that of a skunk; and the name of the Mayapple comes from the fact that the fruit ripens in May.

Plants are also named after how they were used. The teasel, which was brought from Europe to this country, was widely used to “tease” or comb the nap of woolen cloth. Another name for the teasel was gypsy comb; the name of the bed straw comes from the fact that the American pioneers used the plant as a mattress filler, because the stems remained flexible even after drying. The perennials smell a bit like hay and were useful for repelling fleas from the bed; The name of soapwort comes from the fact that when the plant is wound and added to water, the result is a delicious effervescent foam that is used as soap; The name of jewelweed comes from rainwater that beads on the leaves, giving the appearance of small jewels.

Another name for this plant is touch-me-not, and this name comes from the seed pod, which will explode like frost in your hand.

There are many more birds, plants and animals that have names that fit, but no more than one plant that grows in New Jersey.

In December 1774, the English ship Greybound sailed with a load of tea to Philadelphia, the Delaware River. Knowing that other tea ships bound for Boston, New York, and Philadelphia had returned, the captain decided to drop off his tea at nearby Greenwich, New Jersey. Here the tea was stored in the cellar of a sympathetic Tory named Sam Bowen.

However, the secret was leaked, and the Patriots responded. On the night of December 22, 40 men, disguised as Indians, stormed the house and burned the tea. The Greenwich was the sixth tea festival to take place up and down the East Coast where tea was destroyed. The Greenwich Tea Party was the last and least famous of these parties.

New Jersey tea is a low, erect shrub that grows up to three feet tall. The leaves give the whole plant a grayish cast. On the clever tips grow small white flowers. The dried leaves make an excellent tea that was very popular during the Revolutionary War.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his outdoor podcasts at www.onemaningreen.com.



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