Wild About Texas – October, 2007

Melampodium leucanthum, Tetraneuris scaposa, Penstemon laxiflorus … whew! What mouthfuls! Many gardeners, perhaps because they feel intimidated or simply do not see the value of scientific names, refuse to concern themselves with them. Why would anyone make an effort to learn that cumbersome jargon, anyway?

Many of you already know more than you think. Do you know what the terms “hirsute,” “helios,” “leuco,” or “carnos” mean? (*See end of article for answers.)

Common names vary from region to region and from person to person, and many unrelated plants share the same common names. Botanical names follow accepted international convention, making them universally useful regardless of the language spoken.

Using botanical names is critical for getting the right plants. What would you expect from a specimen labeled “primrose?” Would you have a member of the Primula genus or would you have an Oenothera (evening primrose, also commonly known as buttercups). Or, maybe it’s a Ludwigia (water primrose).

How about “foxglove?” Would it be one of our native Penstemon species or a European Digitalis? These are all very different plants with assorted flower colors, mature sizes, bloom periods and other qualities. Some are benign and others may be poisonous. Beware!

Learning and using scientific names can be fascinating. You can learn a lot about the history, distribution, and physical traits of plants. For example, Lindheimera texana (Texas yellowstar) is named in honor of the prominent botanist Ferdinand Lindheimer, who was a resident of New Braunfels and did so much for botany in Texas in the 1800s. The specific epithet “texana” refers to part of the plant’s geographical range.

Below is a very short list of botanical translations to whet your interest in learning more about plant names.

Aquilegia canadensis: (Latin: aquila=eagle, referring to the shape of the petals; Canadensis=of Canada, part of its geographical range). WILD COLUMBINE.

Dalea frutescens: (Dalea=after botanist Samuel Dale who lived in England from 1659-1739; Latin: frutex=shrub). BLACK DALEA.

Lupinus texensis: (from Latin: lupinus=wolf, from the erroneous idea that the plants destroyed soil nutrients; texensis=of Texas. This species is endemic, meaning it occurs only in Texas). TEXAS BLUEBONNET.

Melampodium leucanthum: (from Greek: melas=black and podos=foot; leukos=white and anthos=flower). BLACKFOOT DAISY.

Passiflora lutea: (Latin: passio=passion and flos=flower; lutea=yellow). YELLOW PASSIONFLOWER.

Penstemon laxiflorus: (Greek: pente=five and stemon=stamen, flowers have five stamens; laxus=loose or open, florus=flower). LOOSE-FLOWERED BEARDTONGUE.

Salvia coccinea: (Latin: salvus=safe, presumably from the medicinal uses of plants in this genus; coccinea=scarlet). SCARLET SAGE.

Tetraneuris scaposa: (Greek: tetra=four and neuris=nerve; scaposa refers to the long scape or leafless flowering stem). FOUR-NERVE-DAISY.

For further exploration, refer to books such as Timber Press’ Dictionary of Plant Names, by Allen Coombes or Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners, by William Stearn.

*The answers to second paragraph “quiz” are:
carnos=of the flesh

For more information about Texas native plants, visit the Wildflower Center’s Web site at: www.wildflower.org. The mission of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes.

About the author: Andrea DeLong-Amaya is the Director of Horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.

Coombes, Allen J. 1995. Dictionary of Plant Names. Portland: Timber Press.

Stearn, William T. 1996. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners. London: Cassell Publishers Limited.

Diggs, George M., Barney L. Lipscomb, and, Robert J. O’Kennon. 1999. Shinners and Mahler’s Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas. Fort Worth: Botanical Research Institute of Texas.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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