Sharing the plant love (for word nerds)

Echinacea blooming in my herb garden

I’m a word nerd. I blame it on plants. Each plant has at least three names—a common name in the local language and a Latin (or Latinized) binomial (meaning two names). These names usually communicate something. Take coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), for example. One look at these beautiful flowers and you know why it’s called coneflower. Echinacea comes from the Latin root echinos, meaning urchin (another look at the flower’s center tells you why—it’s so spiky!) Purpurea means purple. Echinacea purpurea: purple urchin plant. The names communicate a description of the plant.

Speaking of plants and communication, what about science communication (from the Latin scire, meaning to know, and communicare, meaning to share)? Science communication is all about sharing what one knows. Scientists do this all the time—they investigate a particular topic and then write papers and books or teach to share what they learned.

Sometimes, scientists only really share what they know with other scientists or in a language that is nfsknglakslk (ergo, incomprehensible; kinda like Latin). And that’s too bad because science (or seeking to understand the world, the universe, and everything in it) should be accessible to everyone. However, many scientists are upstanding in communicating their science to the world. (One fabulous recent book written by a scientist for everyone is Thor Hanson’s Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change. Check it out if you haven’t!).

Lately, I’ve been looking for ways to communicate my (mostly plant/people) science to the world. And here are three things I’ve been up to (with lots of pictures).

After our radio interview at the University of Sciences and Arts of Chiapas

1. At the tail end of a field trip last month to Chiapas, Mexico, I sat down with Dr. Felipe Ruan Soto, a biologist at the University of Sciences and Arts of Chiapas, for an interview on his University Radio program that highlights science (here’s the link if you want to listen—note, it’s in Spanish). We discussed ethnobotany and how its practitioners in the US often come to studies of plant-people relationships through a foundation in anthropology, whereas in Latin America, most ethnobotanists are trained first in biology. This creates differences in our approaches—including theoretical orientations and methods—that are neither good nor bad per se, but potentially complementary. We also talked about the traditional foods project we’ve been working on with colleagues and residents in and around Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello (Montebello Lakes National Park). The project documents traditional regional dishes through interviews and participatory videos so locals can circulate “recipe videos” that preserve culturally important gastronomic knowledge and practice (that’s science communication at its tastiest!).


Dancing like cedar trees. Forest School, San Juan Island, WA.

2. Back in the Pacific Northwest, I visited the Forest School on San Juan Island to take a plant walk with 3-6-year-olds. We meandered (and some ran helter-skelter) down a forest trail to the ocean’s edge, admiring and chatting about trees, bushes, ferns, and other plants along the way. The vibrant and interested-in-everything (but not any one thing for too long) energy of the young’uns inspired us to talk a little bit about plant uses… dance like cedar trees in the wind… munch on salal berry fruit leather… imagine we were doing spells like Harry Potter… pluck rosehips from their stems to brew in hot water to sip at tea time (thumb’s up to that!), and balance cedar bark crowns.



New York Botanical Garden lab group meeting participants

3. In my home office over Zoom, I met with members of the People and Plants Lab group at the New York Botanical Garden to discuss Indigenous rights in data and share about my collaborative foods project and how we strive to curate data ethically. The NYBG lab group is doing a really interesting project on Wixárika (Huichol) ethnobotany in Mexico and is looking for options to curate data online. In the food project, we created a digital database of recipes and related information using Mukurtu (“Moo-koo-doo”), a platform that respects Indigenous information-sharing norms. It does this by allowing fine-grained access options–some viewers have access, others don’t, and some can have access at some points in time, as determined according to established cultural protocols. These are essential considerations for science communication!

Sharing what we know is important, but not just for acquiring knowledge. With knowledge, we understand. As Dr. Jane Goodall says, “Only if we understand, can we care….” And caring about each other and the earth (and purple plant urchins) is what it’s all about.

Want more fun plant names demystified?

Lateriflora—laterally blooming flowers (like in Scutellaria lateriflora, Skullcap)

Papaver somniferum – Opium poppies

Somniferum—sleep-bringing (like in Papaver somniferum, Opium poppy. What’s that line in the Wizard of Oz? “Poppies will put them to sleep!”)

Rubra—red (like in Alnus rubra, Red Alder)

Rugosa—ridged or wrinkled (as in Rosa rugosa, that pretty, showy wild rose)

Melaleuca—black and white (as in Melaleuca alternifolia, Tea tree, for its multicolored bark)

Calendula officinalis—from calends, meaning calendar (because it blooms in each month of the calendar) and official (as in the official species used in medicine)

Now, please tell us about YOUR plant-name know-how!

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