Collage by Mary Vaananen

by Mary Vaananen.

I am fascinated by the stories around the naming of plants.

How is it that humans have come to know and name plants? From the beginning, we had a relationship with the natural world…a very deep relationship considering that we relied on plants for sustenance, shelter, and medicine …for our very lives. We could not live without them therefore we had to be very in tune with the plants around us. They were considered persons in their own right, having their own being-ness, individuality and personality. We still cannot live without plants–that has not changed– but our relationship to them, has.

Indigenous peoples named the plants in their communities for their appearance, behavior or what the plant gave to them. Those names are not often translate-able in terms of English and varied from tribe to tribe, just as common names still do today.

Portrait of C.S. Sargent, Francis Skinner and George Engelmann taken at a studio in Monterey, California during their trip in the summer of 1880 to examine trees and forests of the American West for the Tenth Census of the United States. Photo by I.W. Taber courtesy Gray Herbarium Archives.

When the Europeans discovered this land for themselves, they too had an interest in plants…plants sustained their lives too, but as they were a more “advanced” society they brought a different system of naming…the binomial nomenclature of Linnaeus, based in the father of so many languages, Latin.

Many of the names given to the plants they discovered (plants that already had names within the tribes) were in honor of a human colleague, perhaps the first to document or publish in a journal, or a famous botanist (crony-nomial nomenclature?). Although names were many times a mash up of descriptive and devotive, this was a next level…somewhat removed from the deep relationship the indigenous had with the plants. This system did establish a common language of plants which was and still is most useful for us.

Gaura lindheimeri ‘Summer Breeze’ photo courtesy Jelitto Staudensamen GmbH

Gaura lindheimeri won the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society….apparently the gardening elite saw something aesthetically wonderful there. Europeans have reintroduced or selected many North American native plants, fiddled with them and handed them back to us as we became proper ornamental gardeners.

The name Gaura is attributed to Linnaeus originating from the Greek meaning: superb. Of course, the Brits had it right! The Lakota tribe named the scarlet Gaura  “on s’unk oyu’spapi” which translates to “they use it to catch a horse with”.  Apparently, the plant was chewed and rubbed on the hands before horses were rounded up. So, for them, it probably was superb, and one guesses, sticky and alluring.

Recently, Gaura lindheimeri has been placed in the clade Oenothera sect. Gaura subsect. Gaura by Onagraceae experts Warren L. Wagner and Peter C. Hoch.

5a. Flowers opening near sunrise; plants clumped perennial, usually branching from the base, villous throughout and usually glandular puberulent in the distal parts; southeast Texas and Louisiana.

Portion of a Bayesian tree of Oenothera sect. Gaura

Welcome to Cladistics. Now plants are being named and categorized by microscopic genetic patterns/markers in their DNA. This system is a method of classification of animals and plants according to the proportion of measurable characteristics that they have in common. It is assumed that the higher the proportion of characteristics that two organisms share, the more recently they diverged from a common ancestor. This is a new approach to biological classification in which organisms are categorized in groups (“clades”) based on the most recent common ancestor.

Curiously, Oenothera, the name we know evening primroses by and also named by Linnaeus, comes from the Greek name onos theras meaning donkey-catcher or wine seeker, two very different translations that taxonomists cannot quite agree on. But the Lakotas, Linnaeus, the Greeks, and Wagner/Hoch were all in tune on this one…. they use it to catch a horse with. Delightful!

Ferdinand Lindheimer courtesy New Braunfels Conservation Society

I have already gone on Garden Rant record as being a wine seeker. According to letters written to colleague Georg Engelmann in the mid-1880s, Ferdinand Lindheimer, a Germanborn botanist and the anointed father of Texas botany was quite fond of the sweet native grapes growing around his home in New Braufels, TX.  Old world grapes brought with the influx of German settlers did not take well to the Texas climate.

Vitis mustangensis

Lindheimer was superb in his own right. He was a European who forged friendships with the Lakotas and other tribes in and around Texas. He respected their ways and knowledge, and in return was able to travel with them to territories most white men could not go. Lindheimer’s gatherings of plant samples that were sent on (with painstaking perfection) to Engelmann and Harvard Professor Asa Gray were the first to be documented and named in the region. Engelmann surely thought Ferdinand superb, as he named the Gaura after him.

Lindheimer served as the first editor of the Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung, a bilingual German-English newspaper that lasted more than a century. He published the newspaper from his house and included his own sometimes controversial writings. He was involved in local education and served as the county’s first Justice of the Peace. He surely was deeply rooted in his community.

Lindheimer house 2008 By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I wonder if he ever dreamed of plant categories based on the unseen stuff of matter. Technological advances now allow this kind of deep look into the physical matrices of the world. We are getting good at determining how plants have evolved from common ancestors…tracing the paths and forks in the evolutionary road. Does this allow a deeper connection with these plants? Is this next, more advanced stage of classification and discovery allying us more closely to the world?

Gaura flower in hand

I say, let the scientists do their science. 23 and Me can give you a hazy map of where your bits came from, but it cannot tell you why you have a deep penchant for the grape.

I like that we repay the honor by naming our children Iris, Holly, Daisy, Hyacinth and Rose.

Names are a human construct….they fall way short of representing the essence of the thing.

As with any relationship, we can go deeper into alliance with plants. Let’s get to know them beyond their name, hair color, and wardrobe. That’s the challenge today, and in the years to come.

Mary Vaananen lives and gardens in Louisville, KY. She is the North American manager for Jelitto Perennial Seeds, headquartered in Germany.