Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Home » What’s in a name..? (The whole world!)

What’s in a name..? (The whole world!)

Scientific names of plants are a great way to study geography, history, births of nations, or any other aspect of world knowledge.

Image: Stuart Edwards/ Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Stuart Edwards/ Wikimedia Commons.

Without wishing to get too wistful and harking back to the ‘olden days’, I fondly remember a geography lesson where I stumbled upon the inselberg (!?). The term inselberg comes from the German words Insel (meaning island) and Berg (‘mountain’) and refers to an ‘isolated hill that stands above well-developed plains and appears not unlike an island rising from the sea’. The fact that such structures are amongst the most iconic features of the natural world – e.g. think of Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia  – makes for a very powerful association between the word and real-world phenomena. And ever since that moment inselberg has been one of those magical words (for me at least…) that conjures up images of exotic landforms and far-off places (I’m writing these words in Bath, UK, so anywhere beyond England counts as exotic!).

I was reminded of that moment when I chanced upon Kåre Arnstein Lye’s paper entitled ‘Studies in African Cyperaceae 38: Cyperus inselbergensis sp. nov. from inselbergs in Gabon and Cameroun’.  Whilst it may seem surprising to the uninitiated that one can generate 38 papers on cyperaceae, whether in Africa or elsewhere, it was the specific epithet of that particular species that caught my eye. The ‘inselberg sedge’ has been so named because ‘it has a very characteristic ecology as it grows in seasonally wet, shallow soils on or close to inselbergs’. And that got me thinking more generally of the power of plant scientific names to excite the imagination and enhance one’s understanding and appreciation of all sorts of events and phenomena; not just botanical ones. For another example of the meaning of botanical names you could do much worse than revisit my earlier post on ‘You can’t be best at everything…’, where the name of the new – albeit extinct – plant formally named as Potomacapnos apeleutheron has a most intriguing origin.

Translating as ‘freedmen’s poppy of the Potomac’,  that name is rich with history in recognising that the sediments from which the prehistoric plant was unearthed were originally exposed by freed slaves who were forcibly removed from the Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke Island by Union troops during the American Civil War to dig a ditch in 1864. Wow! And that’s before we consider the significance of poppy and Potomac! Scientific names of plants are therefore a great way to study geography, history, births of nations, or any other aspect of world knowledge come to that! Consequently, Mr P Cuttings formally advocates that all children should be taught botany, with emphasis on proper botanical names (and their etymology). Doing so will not only teach them about plants, but will also greatly enhance their understanding of the world, and truly fit them to be knowledgeable citizens for the future. So, let the plants tell their story! (And – more importantly! – let us listen…)

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that international plant science journal for almost 10 years. As a freelance plant science communicator I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Plant Cuttings [] (and formerly at Botany One []). In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

Read this in your language

The Week in Botany

On Monday mornings we send out a newsletter of the links that have been catching the attention of our readers on Twitter and beyond. You can sign up to receive it below.

@BotanyOne on Mastodon

Loading Mastodon feed...