That Which We Call a Rose…
I read once that Eskimos have more than 50 words for snow. I think there might be just as many words in the English language.
Kids call it “fun,” parents call it a “sick day,” ski resorts call it “money,” and my family from Florida will call just about any amount of the stuff a “blizzard.”
If it snows again this year, I might just call snow a few names myself, and they will not be all too pleasant. This young naturalist is ready for spring.
What is in a name? A name gives a thing meaning and tells a story. Even the dreariest of scientific names can reveal something of an item’s significance.
Our reader this week seeks the name of an interesting plant in his backyard.
What is the small plant that grows in my backyard woods at this time of year in clusters? The leaves are the first to show up, and they are green and shiny with spots! –Jack, Boone
The plant in your backyard is one of the first wildflowers to push its way through the soil in the early spring. It takes advantage of the small amount of time when the air is warm, but the leaves have yet to grow from the trees and block the sunlight from the forest floor.
Its yellow petals close at night to protect its inner parts from cold spring nights and reopen each day to invite awakening insects.
The queen bumblebee, the sole winter survivor of her entire hive, depends on its nectar and pollen for the energy to reinstate her brood. In turn, her young will pollinate the rest of the forest.
Because its roots retrieve nutrient phosphorous from the soil, they are the springtime delicacy of roaming black bears. The bears need the phosphorous to strengthen their weakened bones after many months of not eating while in hibernation.
So, how have humans named this harbinger of spring? Take your pick.
The scientific name for the plant, a lily, is Eryothronium americanum. It was named by an English botanist, John Ker Gawler, in 1808. Gawler was more familiar with the European species of the flower.
The genus name comes from the Greek word, “erythros,” which means “red.” This is in reference to the European species that have red leaves.
Long before Gawler gave it an official name, however, it was known as a medicine to the Cherokees who would use it to soothe anything from a stomach ulcer to a tumor.
The early European settlers called it “Adder’s Tongue.” Adder is an Old English word for “snake.” It seems that in the eyes of the settler, the flower’s stem resembled a snake’s neck, and its petals and sepals resembled the snake’s head and tongue. This requires a bit of an imagination.
It is also called “Dogtooth,” because it’s little bulb, or corm, really does look a lot like a dog’s tooth, and “Thousand Leaf,” because it grows in huge colonies.
The most common name, “Trout Lily,” is in reference to the splotches on the leaves. Some fisherman thought they resembled the markings on a brook trout and named the plant accordingly.
All in all, there are about 13 common names for the little plant in your backyard, each of which reveal a little about the plant and a little about the person who named it. I ask you, dear Jack, what will you call it?
If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email (firstname.lastname@example.org) All of your questions will be answered. One or two will be featured next week. See you on the trails!
Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.