The Importance of Names ~ The Flowers

The Nature Conservancy’s Love Creek Preserve near Medina

After poetic reflections on the importance of names for the natural world’s trees, birds, and rocks, it seemed fitting to end the series by considering the names of the flowers that surround us.

When I began roaming in nature, I often was confused by names given to the plants I encountered. In the photo above, the red flowers — a species of Gaillardia — were introduced to me as Indian blanket, blanketflower, firewheel, and brown-eyed Susan. On the other hand, some people called the yellow flowers blooming among the Gaillardia coneflowers; others called them brown-eyed Susans.

It’s a common problem. For two years, I assumed a friend meant a certain spring-blooming yellow wildflower when she mentioned her love of ‘buttercups.’ In fact, her ‘buttercup’ was my ‘pink evening primrose,’ a flower also known as showy evening primrose, Mexican evening primrose, pink ladies, and pink buttercup. Eventually, we sorted out our confusion: learning in the process that using the flower’s scientific name, Oenothera speciosa, could have eliminated hours of good-natured argument.

Oenothera speciosa ~ aka pink evening primrose, aka buttercup

Scientific names can be long, difficult to spell, and harder to pronounce, but the two-part naming system formalized by Carl Linnaeus serves an important purpose. His system categorizes plants by genus and species, and every two part name, like Oenothera speciosa, refers to only one plant.

Eventually, as I became more comfortable with the system, the thought of having a little fun with binomial nomenclature — those two-part names — occurred to me. When the phrase “the naming of plants” came to mind, it evoked T.S. Eliot’s wonderful poem, The Naming of Cats, and a parody was born.

If you’re not familiar with Eliot’s poem, you can hear a recording of him reading it here. If you’ve long enjoyed the poem, you’ll hear it echoing below. Whether Linnaeus would approve, I can’t say, but I’m sure that Eliot would. If nothing else, it makes the world of binominal nomenclature less intimidating, and much more fun.

The naming of plants? It really does matter.
It isn’t correct to think all are the same.
You may think at first I’m indulging in patter,
but I tell you — a plant must have four different names!
First comes the name that tells us its genus —
Gaillardia, Ilex, Solanum, or Phlox;
Clematis and Salvia,  Silphium, Quercus —
the Latin is easy, not hard as a rock.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
some for the cactus and some for the canes —
Monarda, Justicia, or even Lantana
make lovely and sensible Latinate names.
And then, every plant needs a name more particular,
a name that’s specific and quite dignified;
else how could it keep all its stems perpendicular,
spread out its anthers, or blossom with pride?
For namings of this sort, I ‘ll give you fair dozens:
lyrata, drummondii, frutescens, and more —
crispus, limosa, punctatus, texensis —
those names help describe what we’re all looking for.
Of course, there are names by which most people call plants,
like violet, hollyhock, iris, and thyme;
there’s nothing more common than sweet dandelions,
or peaches, or rhubarb for making our wine.
But above and beyond, there’s one name left over,
and that is the Name that you never will guess;
the Name that no researcher ever discovers —
which the plant itself knows, but will not confess.
When you notice a bloom in profound meditation,
its rays sweetly folded, or its leaves well-arrayed,
its mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
of the seed of a thought of a thought of its Name:
its sturdy and windblown,
sunkissed and shadowed,
deep and firm-rooted most singular Name.


Comments always are welcome.
For an extraordinarily useful and detailed exploration of scientific names, please click here.

72 thoughts on “The Importance of Names ~ The Flowers

    1. It’s interesting that you find the scientific names cold and stiff. While they might not be as poetic as some of the common names, I find them infinitely interesting for the information they contain. If I see texanum as a species name, I know that it’s a flower I might have a chance to find. The specific epithet lindheimeri tells me the father of Texas botany, Ferdinand Lindheimer, was somehow involved in a plant’s discovery or naming. The scientific name of the pretty red Turk’s cap — Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii — might seem a little long, but there’s another early Texas botanist: the Scotsman Thomas Drummond. To put it another way, I find most scientific names put our lovely flowers into a larger context: always a good thing.

    1. Thank you. It was great fun to write, and took longer than I imagined it would. I met a few new flowers along the way, too, as I searched for names that would fit the rhythm of Eliot’s poem.

  1. You’re aware that in some religions the name of the deity is so sacred it can’t be spoken or written in full—hence the hyphen in G-d. Judaism also refers to the supreme being as Ha Shem, literally ‘The Name,’ i.e. the name which may not be spoken.

    A decade ago on a field trip a botany professor said that with all the recent advances in DNA technology and the resulting reclassifications of plants, we’d reached the point that for some species the common name has proved more stable than the scientific name.

    1. There seems to be something about names and naming that’s almost primal; the Genesis story of Adam sure reflects that. In some cultures, the power of a name still is felt. In Liberia, a proverb advised “Don’t name your children until the measles has passed.” It suggested that death might notice a child with a specific name, so a good many kids ran around with names like Tuesday or Saturday until they were two or three years old, when they would have survived long enough to avoid death’s notice.

      In the same way, occasional notes would show up on the hospital bulletin board saying things like “Kwame Flumo will henceforth be known as Abraham Stevens.” Sometimes a religious conversion was involved; sometimes, it was only a sign of someone wanting to move away from village life.

      While I was digging around, I found this interesting recent article about scientific names. It’s well written and amusing enough that I often found myself smiling at passages like this:

      “Many common names are confusing. A pineapple is not a kind of pine, nor is it an apple. Kentucky bluegrass is not blue, nor is it native to Kentucky. Names such as “welcome home husband, no matter how drunk ye be,” “kiss me over the garden gate,” “spotted arsemart,” and “ramping fumitory” make it difficult to maintain that common names have brevity and clarity of meaning.”

    1. Thanks, Judy. Knowing that people’s interests are different, I tend to use both common and scientific names in my posts. Of course, there are plenty of times when I’m unsure of a plant’s true identity; that’s when that wonderful abbreviation sp. or spp. comes in handy as a way of saying “I think I’ve got the genus right, but the species? I haven’t a clue!”

  2. Such a great poem! I’ve learned to, at the very least, be familiar with the botanical names and families of plants, but some just don’t stick in my head. I grew up calling the pink evening primrose, ‘buttercups’, but no longer do that as it’s confusing. I do love the common names thought, some are downright poetic!

    1. What’s interesting about the ‘buttercups’ name for the pink evening primrose is that my friend was raised in the Panhandle– up by Amarillo. That means that the ‘buttercups’ name stretched all the way across Texas. It would be fun to try and track down how the name took hold, and how it traveled.

      The good news is that there’s no need for a forced choice between common and scientific names. They’re different because they serve different purposes. That said, I’ve found it rewarding to begin learning those scientific names. I still remember the day that same friend asked me the name of the rattlesnake master on a prairie. Without even thinking, I said, “Eryngium yuccifolium.” She looked at me like I’d grown two heads. But here’s an interesting tidbit. I just looked up rattlesnake master on the site, and discovered that another common name for it is bear grass: a quite different plant (Nolina texana) that I think I remember from your garden.

  3. A lovely couple in Holland invited me to their home for afternoon tea. He spoke English well, and she had only a few words. But she and I shared some happy time talking about her flowers, because she knew them by their scientific names, and I knew a few that way as well – a common language. Loved your paraphrasing of the poem, especially the last stanza, very evocative.

    1. What a wonderful tale. It strikes me as a

      I’m good reminder that even those who share English as a language sometimes can profit by having that “shared language” of the binomials. And of course that’s true for more than the flowers. Birds, mammals, trees, grasses, insects: all make use of the system, and profit from it!

      I’m glad you enjoyed that last stanza. It’s the language of relationship and imagination, rather than the language of the laboratory.

    1. There are so many lines I enjoy in this one it’s hard to pick one out, but the one you highlighted certainly is a favorite. It hadn’t occurred to me until just now that the repetition is something Christina Rossetti used in her poem “In the Bleak Midwinter”:

      “In the bleak midwinter,
      Frosty wind made moan;
      Earth stood hard as iron
      Water like a stone.
      Snow had fallen
      Snow on snow on snow
      In the bleak midwinter
      Long, long ago.”

  4. Witty and wonderful. Thanks. I prefer Jeremy Irons reading of the naming of cats to Mr. Eliot’s although both are excellent. You can find it by diligent hunting on the web. Suggestion: perhaps Mr Irons would agree to read your creation?

    1. Nothing against Jeremy Irons, but if anyone other than myself were to do an interpretive reading of the parody, it would have to be T.S. Eliot. Since that’s impossible, this little creation will languish in a corner of the web like an unseen violet blooming in the woodland. It’s not the worst fate in the world!

      1. And Thomas Gray would agree with you;

        Full many a gem,of purest ray serene,
        The dark, unfathom’d caves of ocean bear;
        Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
        And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

        Perhaps I am getting a bit carried away here….

    1. Thanks, Derrick. Eliot is one of my favorite poets, partly because he’s capable of delightful humor as well as some almost impenetrable thought: e.g., the “Four Quartets.”

  5. I suppose the perfectionist in us demands to specify particular names for particular flowers, but I think Shakespeare had it right all along: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet, of course)

    1. I don’t think it has much to do with perfectionism, except in the sense that getting the scientific name right is helpful for gardeners, botanists, and anyone trying to distinguish native from non-native plants. Pick up a flat of “phlox” from a Big Box Store, and you may or may not get a plant that will thrive in your yard. Being able to check the scientific names, then using the information to see what will be happy and what will wilt in a week is useful!

    1. I’m no botanist, but I sure do enjoy learning about and using the tools they’ve developed over the years. Not only that, the lives of the early botanists are fascinating — including their informal competitions with one another, and their occasional snarkiness in their correspondence. There were times when one would discover what he thought was a “new” species only to have someone else disagree in the most pointed terms. Great fun.

  6. As much as I know the scientific names have a purpose and are the best way to assure we’re all talking about the same thing, I still find myself preferring all the various common names even when they might introduce some little bit of confusion. They feel much more poetic and beautiful for me. Maybe one day I’ll do better with naming. All that said, though, I love the poem and the idea of that one final name we’ll never know. That has a poetic bit of beauty to it that very much appeals to me, especially as a lover of fantasy literature where so often names have power and many creatures attempt to keep their true name hidden and known to only the very few they trust with their lives, lest others gain power over them. I feel it might be time for a reread of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series.

    1. We sometimes fall into either/or thinking, when both/and is so much more useful. I love names like “Venus Looking Glass,” “Snow-on-the-prairie,” and “Naked Turtleback,” but there’s a time and a place for using their scientific names — especially if more information is the goal. As for the power of names, what you say here about hidden names resonated. Take a look at my exchange with Steve Schwartzman, above, where there are a few thoughts about that. There still are cultures in the world where those hidden names are crucial to life itself.

    1. Isn’t it, though? A good parody is as much a tribute to the original as it is appealing on its own merits, and there’s no one I’d rather honor than Eliot.

      1. I think you got so excited by finding a tribute to taxonomy you couldn’t help yourself! “The Naming of Cats” was the first poem in Eliot’s book titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats — there’s a bit about it here. It was the basis for the musical Cats — the poems were included in letters Eliot wrote to his godchildren.

    1. Thanks, Jim! It was fun finding names that fit the rhythm of Eliot’s poem as well as they fit their flowers. And now I think you must have passed the link on to Rooster — thanks!

    1. Oh, my! This is my little spot for posting all of my plant discoveries, or for highlighting the beauty of our wildflowers. Just yesterday I was out at a local state park, seeing different asters still in bloom and thinking of your Symphotricum species! As current blooms fade, I’ll be taking a look back at some plants I didn’t have time for during the spring and summer — including some of our native cacti!

  7. What came to mind was an episode from Pogo of sainted memory, a case of mistaken identity, wherein C. LaFemme indignantly exclaims, “He’s not me; he’s him. I’m me.” I’ve been an addict since the age of 13 and have whole books memorized, drawings and all. Not coincidentally, these fragments get coughed up on a random basis by the algorhythms of memory. Your picture evokes memory of a friend who made her family home in a renovated section bunk house left over from the XIT ranch. She was not a fan of manicured lawns and was delighted to have a wildflower meadow in front of the house.

    1. I’d be pleased to have an old bunkhouse with a meadow in front. The fact of a connection with the XIT would make it even more special: living history at its best. As for Churchy’s point, it’s well taken. As some other anonymous bard once said in a somewhat related way, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

  8. You commented about naming things being primal and I agree – when we name something we gain power over it; anything anonymous is considered more threatening. The unknown.

    And I like how the same plant may have many common names, often reflecting different uses of the plant for different people.

    1. It didn’t occur to me until I read your comment that I’d somehow missed including the great Jim Croce song. Our names help to call us into existence, too — keeping us from being anonymous. If I’m walking down the street and someone calls out “Hey, you!” I may or may not look. If I hear my own very particular name, I’ll turn, and respond. Who knows? If we call a flower by its name, it might be more willing to respond, too.

        1. I think so, although I’m one of those who truly believes that the plants surrounding us are as sentient — in their way — as the animals and insects we encounter.

  9. It gets even more confusing when the scientific names are changed – usually for something that’s really difficult to pronounce! I was intrigued to see that an Oenothera might be referred to as a buttercup. Here in the UK the name is given to a yellow wildflower that’s a common UK native – Ranunculous repens (creeping buttercup). The common names of plants are fascinating and have lots of folk history attached.

    1. There’s going to be more and more changing going on thanks to scientific advances in such things as DNA analysis. It’s understandable, but hard for us non-botanists to keep up with. Occasionally now I’ll find differences in scientific names among various sites, since some will adopt the new names more quickly than others.

      Your buttercup is a relative of our native buttercups: also yellow, and also in the Ranunculus genus. It’s interesting that yours is listed in some places here as a non-native, noxious weed, due to its enthusiastic growth and toxicity to cattle.
      I also discovered that one of my favorite prairie plants — a Gaura — has been moved into the Oenothera. In that case, one reason can be seen with eyes like yours and mine instead of with a microscope. It’s so interesting that I’ll post about that in the medium future.

    1. Of course the metre and rhythm are the same — as I noted in the post, I intentionally created a parody of Eliot’s poem, as well as including a link to his reading of “The Naming of Cats.” It was the thought of a post called “the naming of plants” that brought his poem to mind, and the rest, as they say, is history!

  10. Outstanding job on your slight alteration of Mr. Eliot’s poem! He has long been one of my favorites and now you have been added to that list. (I was going to say you’re a blooming genus genius, but someone beat me to that particular play on words.)

    Finding proper names for plants, animals, insects, rocks – has slowly evolved into an obsession, especially once I began photographing them. I think the research is part of the fun, although, once in a while it can become frustrating.

    Perhaps taxonomists feel the need to make changes for some sort of job security reason?

    Despite my “need” to assign a name to photographic subjects, I am still able to fondly recall sitting on the porch rocking with my Grandmother as she pointed out all the yellow “sunflowers” across the pasture. Neither one of us knew or cared whether they were Coreopsis, Phoebanthus, Rudbeckia or actually Helianthus.

    We just knew what we liked.

    1. I’ve searched plant lists for many reasons, but never before for names that would scan properly in verse! I love Eliot, and often have used his work in my posts, but this was a different sort of fun; I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      As for names and all that, the physicist Richard Feynman said something about birds that applies perfectly well to flowers: “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

      The names are important, but they’re only part of the beginning: not the end.

      I hope you and Gini are snuggled in, ready to ride out whatever Nicole brings. Oddly (or not) we’re getting our first real cold front of the year on Friday. Around here, we call those hurricane deterrents.

        1. Great! We’re actually profiting a bit from your storm. Some of the dry air that got entrained into Nicole sent an east wind our way, and the humidity’s been dropping all day. It’s lovely outside.

  11. This is perfect. I tried to do something similar with a song a few weeks ago and it is not at all easy. The ending made me think of Ursula LeGuin’s books where knowing someone’s real name has special powers.

    1. Someone else mentioned Ursula LeGuin. I’ve never read any of her work, but there’s no question that name-knowing has power in a multitude of cultures, both real and imagined. You’re right that it takes some time to do a good parody, but it’s great fun, and well worth the effort.

    1. Thanks, Lavinia. There’s a bit of humor in that photo that no one mentioned. In the midst of so many native flowers, that non-native pink poppy made me laugh. I suspect that a mix of wildflower seeds was used in that spot, and a ‘wild’ poppy made its way in. Poppies will grow in gardens, but as far as I know we don’t have any native species.

  12. Linnaeus did science a big favor although for many of us the learning of Latin is difficult to perfect and remember. There are very few I can recall despite understanding binomial nomenclature. But your mention above of enjoying it rings true and while I need help with almost every flower’s or other creature’s name in Latin I enjoy them and also enjoy some of the history involved in the naming.
    I am sure T.S. would enjoy your spin on his poem and can’t think of a reason why Linnaeus would not also…aside from many scientists supposedly not having a sense of humor.

    1. Some of the best scientists in the world — Einstein, Feynman, and others — had delightful senses of humor, and some had views of things that were as imaginative and quirky as any novelists. All of this started me wondering about the naming of celestial bodies, and I discovered that there’s quite a system in place there, too. Eliminating confusion while allowing for some creativity can be quite a chore, but it seems like even the astronomers have found ways to make it possible.

  13. As a kid growing up we called evening primrose ‘buttercup’ because if you stuck your nose in one it would be covered in ‘butter’ pollen. Once I became interested in wild flowers I learned evening primrose. I know there are several common names for just about all wildflowers but I still prefer a common name and wish people would include one with the taxonomic name when identifying a plant.

    1. That’s exactly the explanation my friend offered for her use of ‘buttercup’ for the primrose. Like you, I prefer common names generally, although I always try to include the scientific name in my blog entries. But when I’m out and about? You’re almost never hear me use the scientific name: partly because I can’t remember them, and partly because I’d probably get that side-eyed look from whoever’s with me.

  14. Eliot’s poem encourages me to spend more time with nature’s wildflowers. It may almost December, but early spring will arrive a bit faster now. Linda, thanks for sharing this series.

    1. It’s always fun to roam down here in January, which is about our deepest winter. Even then, there can be the occasional wildflower that finds conditions to its liking, and produces a bloom. Those flowers are a reminder of Victor Hugo’s words: “Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart.”

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