Whats In a Name? Part 1: Ancient classification

As you have been shopping for plants this year (and of course years past) you have probably noticed that your favorite perennials and trees/shrubs have more than one name.  A name you can pronounce, and most likely one that you cannot (or at least I can’t). There is a simple answer with a long, complex history explaining this phenomenon. To put it simply, botanical nomenclature is naming a plant. This two-part post is a compact,  summarized version of how this science has evolved from Ancient Greece to modern day classification.

Flowerland signs show the modern-day genus name (Eryngium), variety (Sapphire Blue), and common name (Sea Holly).
Flowerland signs show the modern-day genus name (Eryngium), variety (Sapphire Blue), and common name (Sea Holly).

Let’s think back to ancient times and how plants were used. Not only were they food, but they were also the primary source of medicine. You can then imagine that it would be very important to make sure you were giving someone the right amount of medicine, from the correct plant,  for the correct treatment (for example in Greece, Male Ferns were used to treat Pinworms). Complilations of plants were beginning to be collected for such use, but were usually held in private collections.

Male Ferns are still popular today...for different reasons. We carry them as part of our regular selection of ferns.
Male Ferns are still popular today...for different reasons. We carry them as part of our regular selection of ferns.

The first botanists were herbalists and acting doctors.  The ancient Greeks were the first in known recorded history to establish a written classification from collections of plants in the publication De Historia Plantarum. This was done by a student of Aristotles named Theophrastus who lived from (370-285 B.C.).

Historia Plantarum

De Historia Plantarum was followed up by De Materia Medica in the First Century A.D. by Diascorides. His volume contained over 600 plants including those that were used in perfumes, oils, wine and as condiments.  He was the first to note similarities in plants in writing by examining plants from what we now know as the mint family. He noted that they all had square stems, fragrant leaves and similar flowers.  In 512 pictures were added to his volume. This was the primary source guide of mid-evil physicians.

A typical drawing from De Materia Medica would show writing and notes about the plant and its variety of uses.
A typical drawing from De Materia Medica would show writing and notes about the plant and its variety of uses.

It was not until the invention of the printing press in 1452, that these books (now known as Herbals) were widely assessable, studied and criticized. The philosophy from the time of the Ancient Greeks had been the active practice of what we know today as the “Doctrine of Signatures”. The philosophy was practiced (without name) that a plant looked like what it could heal, and was then given an appropriate name. For example Liverwort (Hepatica) could heal problems with the Liver. Snakeroot was to be used as an antidote for venom because its flowers resemble a snakes tail. Other plants such as Lungwort, Bloodroot and Toothwort still bare their “healing names” today.

Bloodroot roots secrete a red sap resembling blood that was thought to cleanse blood and treat infections. They grow as a wildflower in Michigan.
Bloodroot roots secrete a red sap resembling blood that was thought to cleanse blood and treat infections. They grow as a wildflower in Michigan.

The second part of this post will begin to discuss the modern system of naming plants, and the important people who have helped shaped how we have come to know plants today.