Exploring the ancient art of naming plants


Now that we are well into winter and can't see many wildflowers, although thanks to the warm temps they are blooming at lower elevations already, let's consider the wildflowers of summer and how they get their curious names.

Many people think the botanical or scientific names are hard to remember while the common names, which can differ dramatically, depending on the region or country where they grow. Further, the name may be given to a closely related species. Still, they are much easier to remember often because the names are descriptive of the flowers.

Sometimes, however, the scientific names can alleviate confusion over common names. The Romans and Greeks began naming plants for particular characteristics, such as erectus for upright, pendula for hanging and floribunda for many flowers.

It was Carl Linnaeus, an 18th-century naturalist who created the system we use today, by giving plants two names, the first being the genus and the second the specific name. Similar genera make up a family, such as Malus, Sorbus, Prunus and Rosa, which all belong to the Rosaceae family.

Examples of how the scientific names alleviate confusion over common names can be seen with a couple of interesting wildflowers that can be viewed on the hike to Williams Lake. The corn lily, Veratrum californicum, is not corn, but one can see its resemblance to a patch of corn. This is a poisonous plant native to mountain meadows at high elevations and is associated with birth defects in animals, a far cry from the corn fed to barnyard animals.

It can also be called western false hellebore or false skunk cabbage. We might call it false corn.

Fireweed, Chamaenerion angustifolium, is another wildflower along the Williams Lake trail. It doesn't look at all like fire, but it likes to colonize after a fire goes through its range.

After a few years as trees and shrubs begin to grow tall, it dies back until the next fire goes through. It is known also as willowherb and rosebay willowherb in different parts of the country. Clearly, a scientific system has its place.

Free seeds,free course andyouth contest

The New Mexico State Forestry office offers seedlings again for extremely low prices. For more than 50 years the division has offered more than 60 species of low-cost seedlings to owners to plant for reforestation, erosion control or windbreaks. Since 1960, more than 4 million trees have been planted as a result of this program. Go to emnrd.state.nm.us/SFD/treepublic/ConservationSeedlings for more information.

A new online course called "Plant Conservation" is offered free to "lead the fight against extinction by taking a leadership role and collaborating with others to save species from extinction using science-based techniques and fostering collaboration and cooperation." This is a 2.5-hour course and provides .4 continuing education units. For more information go to collabornation.net/login/sdzplantconservation

If you know young artists who make art about endangered plants and wildlife, they may wish to submit pieces to the 2018 Endangered Species Day Youth Art Contest. Entries are due March 1.

The contest is an integral part of the 13th annual celebration on May 18. They could win a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with their congressional delegation.

Every year, more than 1,500 students enter the contest. The submissions range from endangered plants to fish to killer whales and hundreds of species in between. The only subject requirement is that the species be currently protected, delisted due to recovery, or a candidate species. For more information go to endangered.org and type Youth Art Contest 2018 into the search bar at the bottom of the page.

An opportunity for teachers

From the initial keynote presentation to the final field trips, the September state conference of the Native Plant Society in Taos was a tremendous success. We want to pass along that success to our local teachers and students by offering two $250 grants for education relating to native plants in the fields of botany, biology or ecology.

Grants will be awarded to any school or teacher in Taos County, according to the following guidelines: keep the mission of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico in mind (see below).

Awarded funds can be used anytime in calendar year 2018.

Also, a hard copy of the grade 9-12 curriculum guide, "From Ponderosa to Prickly Pear," will be awarded to each grant recipient. Teachers are encouraged to download a PDF of this science curriculum for New Mexico from the welcome page of the state Native Plant Society website, npsnm.org

Upon completion of the project, the Taos chapter will ask for a short letter or email describing how the funds were used and photos (with photo releases) to be used in print media, social media and the website. The deadline is Wednesday (Feb. 28).

Instructions for grant submissions: The grant application form can be found at npsnm.org. Submit the grant proposal in Word or PDF format to: TaosNPS@gmail.com. Type "NPSNM Taos Grant Application" in the email subject line.

Do not exceed two pages for this application. Deadline for grant submissions is March 15. Funds are to be used in calendar year 2018.

Multiple applications for different educational purposes or projects in the same school are welcome. Successful applicants will be notified by April 15.

For more information call: (575) 751-0511, or email TapsNPS@gmail.com.

The Native Plant Society of New Mexico is a non-profit organization that strives to educate the public about native plants by promoting knowledge of plant identification, ecology, and uses; fostering plant conservation and the preservation of natural habitats; and encouraging the appropriate use of native plants.

Johnson is an active member of the national Outdoor Writers' Association. She writes this column on behalf of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico, Taos Chapter.