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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 16th June 2011

Why do plant names cause so many problems? And I mean all of them, the common names and the botanical ones. On Tuesday, I wrote about the confusion between the castor oil plant and the false castor oil plant so I thought twice about returning to the subject, today.

But, the fact that I have another plant name story to tell so soon seems to indicate how much of a mess we get ourselves into over the naming of plants.

When it comes to plant names we tend to make barriers for ourselves. We talk about Latin names and immediately that makes them too difficult ‘for an ordinary bloke like me’. Because we shy away from using the plant’s correct name we end up using its common name. There is a problem with common names, however; they can be common. Common, that is, to more than one plant.

Take the name ‘celandine’. There is greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and celandine-poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), three completely different plants that all might be meant when someone says ‘celandine’. That’s a fairly innocent example but what about the difference between Mandragora officinarum, mandrake, and Bryony dioica, English mandrake. The first is a narcotic with alleged aphrodisiac properties and the second is a seriously strong laxative. Mix those two up and the idea of being ‘up all night’ takes on a different meaning.

Solanum dulcamara flowers

Solanum dulcamara flowers

Atropa belladonna flowers

Atropa belladonna flowers

So, different plants with overlapping common names can lead to problems. Added to that, of course, is the problem of the wrong name being given to a plant. As with all things, when it comes to plant names the Internet has made things better and worse at the same time. Better, because it is easier to find information and worse, because wrong information can spread quite rapidly.

Solanum dulcamara is woody nightshade or bittersweet but there are quite a few references, especially on American websites, to it being deadly nightshade which is, actually, Atropa belladonna. None of my books, whether originally published in the UK or the USA, refers to Solanum dulcamara as ‘deadly nightshade’ so, I think, it is most likely that someone gave it the incorrect identification online and that has spread. That’s an illustration of how important it is to use more than one source and to try and make sure your second source hasn’t just done a copy and paste from your first.

As an aside, the same can happen with information about a plant. Until someone put the entire text online, I doubt if many people had read ‘A Modern Herbal’ by Maude Grieve, a book first published in 1931. Now, however, the idea that the berries of the Atropa belladonna are ‘insanely sweet’ is widely held - and completely wrong. The berries have a slightly sweet but insipid taste. They are not especially nice to eat but, if you think that not being ‘insanely sweet’ they can’t be Atropa belladonna and keep eating them, the consequences could be unfortunate.

The only plant name that won’t lead you astray is the botanical name. It is very important to talk about ‘botanical’ names rather than ‘Latin’ names. Many of the words used in plant classification would not be recognised by a native of ancient Rome because they have been created within the past two or three hundred years. Many plant names are closer to Greek than Latin but, even so, an ancient Greek would not recognise them because they have been Latinised. I think a lot of people’s reluctance to come to terms with a plant’s proper name is because they think they are Latin names and shy away from using them.

Solanum dulcamara berries

Solanum dulcamara berries

Atropa belladonna berries

Atropa belladonna berries

I don’t really understand why no-one baulks at calling a particular motor car a Mondeo or a Ferrari but cringes when asked to call a plant Hedera helix rather than ivy.

The story that brought all this to mind came from a forum on a website devoted to all things to do with primitive skills and living. Someone asked if wood from the GoldenRain (sic) tree would be good for making a bow. Several posters offered comments about the pros and cons of using Laburnum before someone pointed out that Laburnum was goldenchain whereas the goldenrain tree was  Koelreuteria paniculata. That produced posts about the other aspect of using common names, languages other than English. People said that in German or Danish Laburnum was goldenrain.

Like a lot of internet forum threads, this one seems to have petered out before the question of whether the original poster had meant Koelreuteria paniculata or a member of the Laburnum genus could be resolved.

I won’t go into the subject of common names in different languages but, when you think about it, the botanical names for plants represent one of the few examples of a worldwide language with no political connotation. Spreading the use of botanical names could lead to something much bigger.