Understanding Scientific Names…for beginners.

Lets begin by making sure it is understood that to enjoy Nature and make use of her bounty, it is not crucial to know Scientific Names. I for instance have been hunting game in Michigan since I was a young boy. I have eaten plenty squirrels, rabbits, deer and various other critters without having a clue what its Scientific Name was. I’ve also settled in on other vittles like Morel Mushrooms, wild plants and berries without knowing the Scientific Names of those either. I did however know what I was eating….every time.

As my main area of interest is Flora, I will head us in that direction. Botanist and other scientist need to be able to narrow down plants to the exact point that when they study one specimen, they know that its DNA, chemical compounds and other characteristics mirror, as close as possible, a specimen collected some distance away. That way, all the medical or nutritional knowledge gained of the plant they are studying can be duplicated in the same species elsewhere, so the benefits are naturally being duplicated.

The problem with common names is that they aren’t accurate. The same name is used for different plants from region to region. Heck, even next door neighbors know plants by different common names. But scientific names (Latin) are known and fairly constant for a plant or mushroom, world wide.

The 3 classifications that you should be concerned with is Family, Genus and Species.

Family tells you whether a plant is related to a Rose (Rosaceae) or a Carrot (Apiaceae).  Genus further separates the Family. For instance, Solanum and Capsicum, both Nightshades, but the first being plants that have tomato like or fleshy fruits. The Latter being plants that contain Capsaicin to some degree, with the exception of Bell Peppers, but it has other qualities that puts it in the same Genus. Then there is Species which specifically tells you what you have, ie, tomato vs potato. 

For example, “Pigweed” is a common name given to many plants. Most commonly to different Amaranths. But I have heard people call Lambs Quarters, Pigweed. Which makes some sense in that it is in the same family as Amaranth (Amaranthaceae) but not the same genus Amaranthus. The genus for Lambs Quarters is Chenopodium. So basically all plants in the Amaranthaceae family stand a chance being locally called “Pigweed”. FYI, they are called Pigweed because farmers loved giving it to their pigs and the pigs loved receiving it. Another FYI, they are typically also very healthy for you, especially the seeds. Many species are used as a grain (sort of-they aren’t grasses). Spinach and Beets are members that you are more familiar with. 

With all this said, Amaranthus retroflexus is exactly what it is to scientist in Michigan or Wisconsin and is not the same plant as Amaranthus palmeri to either of those scientist. 

Scientific names are important to Naturalist for much the same reason. 100% identification is important if you are living off the land or even just studying flora as a hobby.

Typically for most of us, we really start looking at Flora at the Family classification. Its where we start clumping plants and mushrooms together with descriptions that make say, plants of the Nightshade family…a Nightshade.

Solanaceae (Nightshade) is a fairly large family of plants. One of the most economically important plant families there is. Not a lot of people have gone without eating Nightshade of some sort, but you certainly don’t want to eat every Nightshade you run across. Actually, you don’t want to eat every part of very many Nightshades at all. All that I’m aware of are poisonous. Some, however, have edible fruit., seeds or tubers.

Here are a couple Genus within the Solanaceae Family: Solanum and Capsicum.

The genus Solanum contains some common plants that I’m sure you have eaten, but despite their similarities are quite different. Tomato, Potato and Eggplant. The genus Capsicum include all the Peppers, like Jalapeno, Bell and Wax.

Look at the flowers of all these plants and you will see that they are all very similar to any of the non edible Nightshades. Below left is a Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense) the right is a tomato blossom (Solanum lycopersicum).  Both drooping, five petals with prominent Stamen.



The other thing that is common to the other Nightshades is that most of the Nightshade fruits and vegetables  you eat come from poisonous plants. The Potato fruit is in fact poisonous. Only the potato itself is edible.

Now, to break down the Solanum even more, you then look at the species. Solanum tuberosum- the Potato, Solanum lycopersicum-Tomato and Solanum melongena-Eggplant. All VERY closely related, but not interchangeable. 

The point to Scientific names to sum it up…is to be able to confidently talk about or study a very specific plant and know exactly what is being talked about or studied whether the specimen is from Michigan or France or the Scientist is from Brazil or China.

Hopefully this is  a little clearer than mud. If you have any questions or comments, please ask.



About Nature's Access

I am a Grandfather of nine and father of three. I have been married for 35 years. I am a veteran of the Army with eight years of service and one combat tour. I have a bachelors degree in History and Military Science. I love the outdoors. I am a proud Christian. I have many interest and love to research anything that I lack knowledge in. Wild edibles/herbal medicines and survival are passions of mine and I love sharing what I know.
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