Carl Linnaeus and the Name Game

Carl Linnaeus, inventor of binomial nomenclature

Carl Linnaeus, inventor of binomial nomenclature

It is said that when the world is perfected in the end of days, the names of animals and plants will make complete sense to all of us. We will understand why something that has four legs and barks is called a dog – and not a cat – and why something with furry paws and a meow is called a cat – and not a dog. We will understand why a petunia is called a petunia and a marigold is known as a marigold.
Since we will have a deeper understanding of things and their essences, we will be able to divine how it was that Adam gave each and every creature the name that he did, for such naming could not have been done in an arbitrary manner.
In the meantime, however, we have become beholden to a system of Latin names that frequently is confounding. This system was devised in the 18th century by a Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus. It is known as binomial nomenclature or “two-named names,” since every living thing, by the laws of this system, must have two names; the first name represents genus or general grouping and the second represents species or specific individual type. The peach, for instance, is Prunus persica, while the apricot is Prunus armeniaca. The two fruit trees have a generic affinity, expressed in the genus name Prunus, yet they are clearly distinct types, indicated by their different species names.
Often, a plant’s Latin name – also called scientific or botanical name – is relevant to its character, culture or use. Sometimes a relationship between name and origin exists, but sometimes it does not. For instance, Citrus sinensis, is the botanical for orange and literally means “Chinese citrus,” which is accurate, since the native land of the orange is, in fact, China. By this logic, Prunus persica, should have been native to Persia and Prunus armeniaca native to Armenia, yet both of these fruit trees, like the orange, are indigenous to China.
Common names can be as misleading as Latin ones. Tagetes erecta is popularly known as African marigold, white Tagetes patula is referred to as the French marigold. Both plants are native to Mexico.
A strangely but appropriately named plant that blooms in winter is yesterday-today-and-tomorrow. This Brazilian evergreen shrub belongs in every Los Angeles garden. Its flowers open from purple tubes into five-petaled salverform stars. It can be found blooming at almost any time of the year and in almost any exposure.
The flowers of yesterday-today-and-tomorrow change color, as they go, from dark violet to mauve to white. These flowers do not fade so much as they mutate, undergoing a total transformation from royal purple to bridal white. The leaves change color in a most remarkable manner as well. When the leaf buds first break, the incipient growth is so dark green it is virtually black. Gradually, the leaves lighten to a more predictable leathery green on their upper surfaces, offsetting a paler green underneath.
The Latin name of yesterday-today-and-tomorrow is Brunfelsia pauciflora “Floribunda.” This name was given in honor of Otto Brunfels, a botanist monk who lived nearly 500 years ago. Brunfels belonged to the austere Carthusian order, whose acolytes took vows of silence and solitude. One wonders how Brunfels would have reacted to the naming of such a sensual plant in his honor. Aside from the plant’s physical beauty, the intoxicating fragrance of its flowers is legendary. Did I say intoxicating? Brunfelsia is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and has both toxic and hallucinogenic properties.
Brunfelsia makes an outstanding container specimen and deserves wider use in this role, since there are so few plants that flower reliably in pots. It craves continual fertilization during warm weather and will respond to such a regime with more blooms. It will lose its leaves briefly in late fall or early winter before flowering in January or February. As a final perplexing spin on the name game, the species and cultivar names of this plant contradict each other: Pauciflora means “few flowers” and floribunda means “abundant flowers.”
Tip of the week: Lettuce can be planted straight through the winter in Los Angeles. No seeds will sprout more reliably and quickly than those of lettuce. Take advantage of the many types and shapes of lettuce that are available and don’t neglect the red-leafed cultivars. Lettuce may be used as an ornamental bedding plant, giving a fresh and inviting look to any garden scene.

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