“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir
Plants are often identified by two sets of names: “scientific” and “common”. The scientific name comprises the Genus species of the plant in question while the common names are the local nomenclature. Neither of these naming systems are random. Both the scientific name and the common name (or, more often, names) are packed with meaning… they can reveal important information about how a species of plant or animal is related to another, what defining physical features set them apart as a separate order or genus, what area is habitat to that particular species, or how a certain people encountered, interpreted or used that particular species.
Let’s take, as an example, the plant pictured here. Do you know it as worry vine? Or as vervine? What about as Stachytarpheta jamaicensis?
Although many sources traditionally pit scientific names as being at odds with common names, the truth is that neither paints a complete picture without the other. Both are essential to understanding not just how a particular plant relates to others but how it relates to the people who lived alongside it.
In this case, the scientific name tells us several things: The genus Stachytarpheta derives from the Greek ‘stachys’ meaning ‘spike’ and ‘tarphys’ meaning ‘thick’, and refers to the thickened flower spike which is a common trait specific to that particular genus (Plant Net). The species jamaicensis tells us where the plant is likely to be found and, possibly, where it was first described. This, in turns, gives us strong clues as to how it may have been transferred to Cayman if it was not originally found on our shores.
The common names (of which the local names are but a small selection of the many aliases it has across the Caribbean region) tell us how the plant may have been used and where the people who used it may have settled from. The name worry vine hints at its use as a bush medicine to treat nervousness and anxiety, while the name vervine hints that the early settlers of Cayman may have recognised it as having similar traits to Verbena officinalis or vervain, an old world species that is common across Europe and is, indeed, in the same Verbenaceae plant family.
On the surface, a name is just a name… a scientific name nothing more than a jumble of Greek and Latin that is meaningless to most, or a common name rarely spoken by those who pass it daily growing on the roadside. But, if you dig a little deeper, names can reveal truths that are essential to understanding the importance of each plant as it relates to the rest of the natural world and our cultural identities.