Plant Names

There are two aspects to ‘naming’; the generation of the name and the application of the name. Application of a name is  better called ‘identification’. Before anything can be identified, the names must be generated and this is the aspect we deal with now.

Names may be applied to specific things, like a person, or to vaguer, more abstract things, like a football team (whose players change with time). Plant names are of the second, abstract type.

Names might be generated in a moment of creation, or evolve gradually.  The origin of ‘common’ plant names is mostly a matter of gradual evolution in the language. Although the scientific names accepted for particular plants change from time-to-time, scientific naming involves sudden name-creation, deliberately divorced from the gradual evolution of the vernacular, and partly for this reason plant naming makes heavy use of the dead languages of Latin and Ancient Greek. It is the job of the taxonomist to create scientific names, to link these to specimens in herbaria and to describe their features in a way that will distinguish them from all plants named previously. The field guide writer has to sort out how to apply these names to plants on a day-to-day basis, out in the field, and how they relate to common names.

Scientists strive to give a single name to all different types of plant so that they can be referred to in a standard way.  They find common plant names unreliable for general use for various reasons:

  • One name: several species: A common name may be ambiguous, with the same one used for different plants in different places – like ‘iron-wood’ or ‘cherry’. Trade names particularly cover products of a range of plant species with similar properties, e.g. timber trade names often address the timber qualities, not the details of the living tree (‘mahogany’ applies to several species from around the tropics). The common name ‘Madeira’ is an extreme example, used now for a limited number of timber trees in parts of the Caribbean, but derived from the Spanish madera, or timber in general. Ambiguity also arises where colonists, finding substitutes for familiar plants from their old home, use their old names for the new species. So, we find multiple, unrelated verbenas, cherries, plums and walnuts in Anglophone tropical countries.

  • Incompleteness: It frequently happens that a species is not just merged with others in some generic common name, but are effectively invisible in the local culture, addressed by terms like ‘tree’, ‘bois-cendre’ or local names that translate as ‘I don’t know’.

  • Many names: one species: Several different names apply to what scientists consider the same type of plant. This is usually the case for widespread species, where there are many vernacular names, and for very useful species, where the different names may strictly apply to a particular aspect of the plant. People migrate and the origin of functional names are forgotten, so even in one village you may well find disagreement on the most correct local name for a plant.

  • Impermanence: Folk names tend to disappear or evolve, often even in a few years, with the culture that invented them There is no guarantee that a local name will continue to be used for the same plant (as with Ghanaian Sapotaceae).

What is less often emphasised, however, is that scientific names suffer from all of these same types of problem – impermanence, incompleteness, synonymy and inconsistency of application (See)- albeit usually in a less chronic form. This is in spite of efforts made by scientists to place their names beyond the vagaries of normal language in the ways we summarise next.

Scientific names

Scientific names reflect the hierarchy in which species are classified. This hierarchical arrangement is also a common, though not universal feature of common nomenclature: combinations of names to express patterns of affinity or perceived relatedness in plants (Tree, Palm tree, Coconut palm tree, Dwarf coconut palm tree), rather like street addresses. Such a hierarchical classification in taxonomy helps the identification process, by allowing identifiers to think, perhaps, first of the family, then of the genus then the species, even if only the latter two ranks are routinely stated. A hierarchical arrangement of plant names or classes (‘taxa’) also helps scientists organise their descriptive data. Descriptions of species in a particular book do not have to repeat the general details about its genus or family if the species are nested within sections describing the genera, and genera described within families.