poetry and prose about place

not naming any names (along the country road # 7)

with 4 comments

What do you do if you are stranded beside a highway and have to wait for a long while? I name the plants I see growing in the ditches.

Part of my fascination with plant taxonomy is the interesting origin of the plant names. This includes both the Latin ‘scientific’ names and the common names. Many scientific names for plants can be traced to their physical characteristics. However, with references to mythology and local lore, and the modern unfamiliarity with Latin and Greek, the origin of many names may seem quite obscure.

For example, the Latin species name for Buttercup is Ranunculus, from the Latin name for ‘little frog’; Pliny gave this name to the plant because it grew where frogs lived. Some plants were named because they resembled parts of common animals; Larkspur has the specific name Delphinium since the flower resembles the shape of a dolphin. Other plants were given names because they reminded botanists of everyday objects – the species name of Meadowsweet is Spirea, from the Greek speira, wreath.

Meadowsweet (Spirea latifolia (Ait.) Borkh.)

Common names may vary with location. One of the reasons for using scientific names is the variety of common names assigned to a single plant by people of different localities. Botanists needed a way to make sure they were talking about the same plant. So Virgin’s Bower, or Devil’s-darning-needle, or Devil’s Hair, or Lovejoy, or Traveller’s Joy, or Love Vine are known by one scientific name, Clematis virginiana L.

Many common names also include references to mythology or religion. Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara L.), the dandelion-like flower blooming in our ditches almost before the snow has disappeared, is also called Son-before-the-Father, which refers to the appearance of flowers before the leaves.

Since New Brunswick is a bilingual province, I like to know the French common names for plants as well as the English. Some examples of French names for common flowers include pas-d’âne (literally donkey-steps) for Coltsfoot, immortelle (meaning immortal) for Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea (L.) C.B. Clarke), and herbe aux gueux (meaning beggar or tramp) for Virgin’s bower.

So, what is this plant, discovered beside a stretch of highway while we waited for our friends to arrive?

what is my name?


common name unknown



stranded beside the highway

entirely industrial

chain-link fence, ditches sandy dry

we passed the time

naming the familiar

giving names to unknown






definitely clover

but what species

what common names might suit

a crowded cloud

of soft and purple




we tried ‘common’

clover cloud

clover crowd


rabbit’s whiskers



billow hill

lavender clover

Purple Pleiades Pleione




we tried Latin







we mixed Latin with Italian

musical notation

Trifolium pianissimo

very soft



our drive arrived

our wait was over

botanical field-guide

verified Trifolium arvense

Rabbit-foot, ‘of-the-field’, Hare’s-foot, Stone Clover



a footnote:  sometime the botanical description is no help at all…

Trifolium arvense L.

“…long-villous 10-nerved sessile campanulate calyces crowded, spreading, their setiform teeth much longer that the tube and the marcescent corolla…”

Fernald, Gray’s Manual of Botany, 1950.


© Jane Tims 2011

4 Responses

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  1. Ah, but botanists keep changing the scientific names, too, and the process seems to have sped up with the advent of DNA analysis. In some cases there have now been as many scientific names for a species as vernacular ones.

    Steve Schwartzman


    Steve Schwartzman

    November 3, 2011 at 2:43 am

    • Hi Steve. You are right, and it doesn’t help when I use older Floras for my identifications! I use ‘The Plant List’ online to check my species names, but I get caught up in synonyms more often than not! Jane


      jane tims

      November 3, 2011 at 7:08 am

  2. Now this is an interesting essay. I find myself constantly wondering ‘what is that plant?’ as I drive or walk around. Sometimes you can find it in a guide, sometimes, you can’t, and occasionally I’ll give a ‘pet name’ to a mystery plant, such as ‘featherweed’ or something else descriptive. I get the idea that your average person would find this a bit ‘different’ 😉


    Watching Seasons

    October 20, 2011 at 6:26 pm

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