Modern Botany for the Medievalist

The original version of this article was published online at Phiala's String Page.

The importance of names

1. Clarity. Many plants have more than one common name, and many common names apply to more than one plant. Common names get even more difficult when you try to deal with other languages and regions. Each plant species has one and only one scientific (Latin) name.

2. Accessibility. If you use the scientific name, everyone will know exactly what plant you are talking about. Not only that, you will instantly gain access to huge amounts of knowledge about plants!

Theophrastus developed the first known formal system of plant classification about 300 BCE, but the modern system wasn't developed until the 18th century. Carolus Linnaeus created a consistent hierarchical system for naming all organisms. Before that, plants were named using a multiword description, and that description wasn't necessarily consistent between authorities.

The Linnaean system uses "binomial nomenclature", meaning that the essential form of a plant name has two parts: genus and species. The Genus is capitalized, the species is not, and both are italicized.

Here's the whole system, for plants:

  DIVISION (= PHYLUM for animals)
        FAMILY (ends in -aceae, important for plant taxonomy)
          Genus species

You often see a third part, something like: Plantago major L. The third part of the name is the authority, the botanist who named that species. Species with an L. were named by Linnaeus himself. The goal of modern taxonomists is to develop a classification scheme that shows true evolutionary relationships. As botanists learn new information about these relationships, they do change plant names to reflect that. The name of person doing the changing is added to the end to help keep things straight. (There is an international authority in charge of all this.)

Sometimes, especially in garden catalogs, species names may also have variety (var. suchandsuch) or cultivar names "GrowMe" attached. (The difference is that varieties occur naturally, but aren't distinct enough to be separate species, while cultivars must be raised in "captivity" to remain distinct.)

As medievalists, we have a special interest in the scientific names. The names of common European plants are usually derived from the longer descriptive names already in use, and almost always tell us something interesting about the plant (once you learn a bit of Latin vocabulary).

For example:

	officinalis: medicinal				vulgaris: common
	oleraceus: kitchen vegetable			rugosum: wrinkled
	sativus: cultivated				arvensis: of the fields

Most people already know some of the really hard scientific names, like Asparagus and Chrysanthemum. Medievalists will recognize even more - Petroselinum, for example.

And it's even easier than Latin - botanical Latin isn't even remotely grammatical (usually the genus and the species have the same ending), and isn't pronounced in a way that would make Latin scholars happy. Just say whatever makes sense to you - somewhere there is a botanist who agrees.

Botanical Resources

The best source and most up-to-date source of essential plant information is the USDA plants database. You can search the database by common name (which will find many possibilities) or by scientific name (which will find you only one). It includes only plants found in the United States, but after several centuries of imports, that includes nearly everything that you might find mentioned in medieval manuscripts.

The PLANTS database includes many useful features:

Print Resources

Technical Keys: Written in jargon, but good for looking things up if you already know what they are! They contain background information about native range, regional range, habitat types, plant size, etc. Non-technical books: Much lower knowledge requirement, cheaper and easy to find. There are many available, but this one is my favorite.

Online Resources

Plant names

Species information

General botany

History of botany