By Ed McMackin, a biologist by training and a naturalist by nature
As soon as we ask the question, “What is this plant called?”, we are rubbing shoulders with plant taxonomy and plant classification – topics that make some people run for their lives. And yet, in the spring season, flowers are a “hot” topic. So, here we will lightly, very lightly, touch on the topic of naming plants and how they got the names they have.
It can be useful to know some of the history behind plant names. A lot of common plant names were “bequeathed” to us from previous generations. It seems they ran out of names, so started using associations and practical uses in the naming of plants. For example, soapwort, lousewort, milkwort, and so forth. “Wort” in “old English” simply means “plant”, so we have, soap-plant, louse-plant, milk-plant, and so on. Many common names of plants do allude to specific chemical and/or physical characteristics, as in stinging nettle. Touch-me-not originates with the mechanical “ability” to propel the seeds into the air.
Some plants carry a name because of the habitat in which the representative species of where the group was first found. “Desert-parsleys” come in here.
Now let’s take a scant look at “scientific names”.
In moist habitats at sub-alpine levels, one can often find Leatherleaf Saxifrage (Leptarrhena pyrofolia). Pyro refers to pear and folia refers to the leaves (foliage). The leaves have a pear shape. Some authors refer to this plant as “Pear-leaved Saxifrage).
There is a translation for most scientific names. Sometimes the first or second part alludes to an early botanist, as with Bitterroot (Lewisia rediva). Lewisia refers to Lewis from the Lewis and Clarke Expedition.
Without getting into the higher and larger divisional groupings of the Plant Kingdom – like gymnosperms, angiosperms, dicots (dycotyledons) and monocots (monocotyledons) – let’s drop down to the family level. When it comes to plants of the Kootenay Lake Region and the Central Kootenays, there are several major families and several smaller families, all distinguished by each of their own specific characteristics.
For example, the Lily Family includes plants with grass-like leaves, parallel veins, and flower parts in groups of threes, sixes, nines, or twelves. Three-spot Mariposa (Calachortus apiculatus) and Western White Trillium, now in flower, have three petals, while Glacier Lily, also in bloom now, has six petals.
The Rose Family is typified by the wild rose, which is shrubby, often thorny, woody stemmed, with inferior ovary (meaning the fruit develops below the flower parts). This is the case with apples, pears, plums etc. Cinquefoils and Potentillas, also in the Rose Family are herbaceous (non-woody), except for Shrubby Cinquefoil.
Another large family in the plant kingdom is the Sunflower Family, which is divided into Asters, Daisies (Fleabanes) and a few other smaller groups and individuals. Asters and Daisies are probably some of the more difficult to identify, requiring closer examination. But like in human relationships, if you spend time with the flowers you will get to know them. Another large group is the Buttercup Family, typified by the “buttercup” flower. Surprisingly, not all members of that family have a buttercup-like appearance. Please see Monkshood (Wet montane forest) may be found, in season, on the Ka Papa Trail.
Families, as alluded to, are divided further into genera and species. The genus is first, as in Prairie Crocus, and the second, Anemone patens, is the species. Anemone patens is found in the Dry Montane Forest Zone (Columbia-Cranbrook Valley) while in the Kootenay Lake Region (Wet Montane Forest) one may find another five or so species of Anemone most in the Sub-alpine and Alpine Zones.
Many plant enthusiasts use several reference books. Many books and internet sites have color-coded sections and to help focus on identification by family.
So with this little bit of background information one may brave an outing into our Kootenay Lake forests and meadows. Unless one is highly energetic, refrain from taking a half a dozen books with you and your laptop. Instead, take one field guide (such as Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia) and bring a sturdy, pocket-sized (4.5 in X 6 in.) field notebook. A photo taking device is good too. Sometimes, I think I will remember a plant’s location, but I am sure to forget important details. If there is still difficulty in identifying a wildflower, or one is still not sure, feel free to phone me at 250-866-5747 or email me firstname.lastname@example.org. And send me a photo!
Taking an interest in your Kootenay Lake surroundings can add an immense variety and purpose to one’s walks, hikes, and other outdoor ventures.