Sunday, August 8, 2010

Latin Lover

St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum)

Plant Identification... Are you asleep yet?

Whenever I go into plant ID, Buck's eyes begin to glaze over. I can't say I blame him. It can get very technical and it is not very interesting unless you need to know which plant is which for some reason. For instance; "Is that plant a noxious weed?" Or "Can I eat that?" Or "Did I plant that or did it just grow there?"

The biggest hurdle to jump is the FEAR OF LATIN.

It sounds funny and is unfamiliar so we tend to avoid it. But it sure beats having someone tell you "Oh, that plant is stickywilly" Huh? Someone else will call it "bedstraw". And yet another person I know calls it "cleavers".

These are all common names for Galium aparine L. . A rambling plant that will stick to you with it's little hook-like hairs and round seeds.
That's the trouble with common names, they are common only on a local basis.

When most of us didn't move much farther than the next small town common names were a shared language, but now we move from coast to coast and country to country. What gives us the power to share knowledge in the the world of growing things is the Latin naming system.

For our scientific Latin based naming system we have Sweden born Carl Linnaeus to thank. He made sense of the world around us so that we can avoid the kind of plant and animal world equivalents of the 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter which was lost in space due to confusion about what measuring system was being used to build it.

Because of Mr. Linnaeus we can confidently identify a plant to someone in Africa, Spain or next door without any fear of mis-communication.

Latin is a language
Dead as dead can be.
First it killed the Romans
Now it's killing me.

(This is a poem our daughter June is very fond of.

One aspect of the Latin naming system I enjoy is knowing what each element of the name means. It's often helpful in identifying the plant's physical attributes. For instance, Hypericum perforatum L., or commonly known as St. Johnswort, is in the Hyperiacaceae family and perforatum means perforated. It's leaves are literally perforated and if you hold them up to the sun, you can see the tiny holes in the leaves.

If you pinch a yellow flower bud between your fingers you will see a surprising dark red/purple liquid.

This liquid is hypericin the main component in several medications used around the world for a wide spectrum of health issues from depression to staphylococcus infections. It is not native to the US and can cause livestock (and people) who consume it to be hypersensitive to the sun, so it is generally considered by farmers to be a noxious weed.

O.K. For those who didn't fall asleep, go forth Veritate et virtute "with truth and courage" and use your Latin.

Oh, and before you go could someone wake up Buck and tell him we're having spaghetti with homemade Lycopersicon esculentum sauce for dinner?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Phoebe, I'm so glad you dropped by my blog for my herb garden post. The medicinal St. Johns Wort is what I'm after. I ordered the seeds from .... I can't remember where, Pinetree Garden perhaps, and where I planted them is the only place this plant is growing. Thank you for directing me to your post. Very interesting about the perforations in the leaves. I agree that Latin names are fascinating. I'll have to check the leaves of mine tomorrow.


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