Common Names

by Terry Terrell

In the "Fun Facts" we try to provide scientific as well as common names when we refer to most plants and animals. Common names are often descriptive or informative, but often there may be several for one species of organism. For example what are commonly called elk (Cervus elaphus) in the western U.S. can also be referred to as wapiti. More confusing, in Europe that animal is called a red deer, and the word elk is used for what Americans would call a moose. If your purpose is to communicate without possibility of error, using common names is not always the best way to go. While scientific names are specific to one and only one genus and species of organism, they are generally Greek or Latin words, and most of us speak neither language. Thus, there is a role for common names in conversation.

How did common names arise? Often, they were descriptive of the plant, where or how it grew, or of some useful or important property of the plant. Examples of descriptive common plant names include monkshood (Aconitum columbianum), pussy toes (Antennaria sp.), paintbrush (Castilleja sp.), and horsetails (Equisetum arvense). Characteristics for which plants are given descriptive common names are not always visible - they may be related to smell such as tarweed (Madia glomerata), stinkweed (Cleomella), sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale).

Snowlover (Chionophila jamesii) grows on high alpine ridges where snow is common even in summer. It blooms as the snow is melting, so obviously its common name came from a description of its usual environment. Fireweed (Chamerion danielsii) occurs frequently on areas recently burned or otherwise disturbed and is another example of a common name derived from the plant's usual environment.

The common name baneberry (Actaea rubra ssp. arguta) communicates a very important fact about the plant - that its berries are poisonous to humans and we eat them to our bane or detriment. The utility or danger of plants with common names like scouring rush (Hippochaete sp.), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) (medicinal), and poison ivy (Rhus radicans) is obvious.

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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