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.
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.