Saturday, April 16, 2011

It's a Family Thing

The common names of plants and animals have always fascinated me. Some struck me as so weird when I first encountered them that I couldn't resist doing a little etymology research. My favorite from last year's summer photography was Henbit Dead Nettle. Sometimes the names are benign and descriptive, like Red Larkspur in the top photo today. The fully-bloomed flowers are red and the flower shape reminded someone of the spur on a lark's foot. But the scientific name of the larkspurs is Delphinium which comes from a Greek word for dolphin. The flowers of some species apparently look somewhat like dolphins. There are several wild species of Delphinium in the Sierra, and there are many cultivated varieties. When you have lots of gardeners as well as botanists interested in a certain group, their terminology often overlaps. Thus, many gardeners who are not botanists will call all the larkspurs Delphiniums. Note, when the scientific name is used as a scientific name, it is customary to italicize it. When both generic and specific name are used, as in Delphinium nudicaule, it is proper to italicize both, but begin the genus name with upper case and the specific epithet with the lower case. When using the common names as proper nouns, as in Red Larkspur, it is proper to capitalize both, but not italicize. To many people, this may be much ado about nothing. However, when one wants precision information and efficient communication from and with others, it's helpful to speak the same language. Also, if one makes a habit of searching for the meanings and origins of biological names, it's an inexpensive and fascinating pastime and can uncover all sorts of fascinating history.
I titled this post "It's a Family Thing" because I was surprised to see so many of this season's earliest flowers in the mustard family. First, over two weeks ago, was the Elegant Rock Cress down by the Greenville Y. Then came the Spring Whitlow Grass in our school yard. Then, this past few days, there's been an eruption of two species of Cardamine, the California Milkmaids, C. californica, and the Stout-beaked Toothwort, C. pachystigma. Note, it's also permissible and customary when mentioning a genus for the second and following times in a passage, to use only the capital letter for genus if it's followed by the species name. Note also, the common name of the latter species might become my new favorite.
Another reason I'm thinking in terms of families is that it's a great way to learn lots of new flowers in a short time. Some families have such obvious family characteristics that you can identify the family easily then narrow down which species you have in your field guide - if it's there! I'll be teaching some classes in Nature Journaling soon, and I will explain the family approach. Contrary to what I just wrote, some families are notable for the incredible diversity embraced by them. One of my favorites in this regard is the buttercup or crowfoot family, Ranunculaceae. It includes buttercups, larkspurs, columbines, bane berry, monkshood, anemone and clematis, among others.
Another family that has prominent members in our forests this time of year is the primrose family, Primulaceae. Two representatives here that don't look much alike are the Henderson's Shooting Star and the Pacific Starflower. Photos 4 and 5 from the top. Their scientific names are Dodecatheon hendersonii and Trientalis latifolia.
A very diverse family in our area that hasn't bloomed yet, as far as I know, is the saxifrage family, Saxifragaceae. A beautiful one that will soon grace our damp canyon walls is Woodland Star, Lithophragma hesperus, sixth photo from the top with the black background. I took this photo last summer. Its close relative, another saxifrage, will arrive sooner in our creeks - so-called Indian Rhubarb or Umbrella Plant, Darmera peltata. The stalks bearing large clusters of pinkish and white flowers will rise two to three feet out of the water, go to seed, wilt, and die back, to be replaced later in the season by huge, round leaves on equally tall stems. They provide a great shady green cover for fish and invertebrates until fall then turn all shades of flame red and orange before dying back.
Last, one more photo of a Black Widow spider for my spider-loving friends. Latrodectus hesperus, family Theridiidae. We have the Western Black Widow here whose species name is different than the one found back East. When I tried to look it up to be sure, I could not find Black Widow in the index. It was under "Western!" Jeesh! Despite the occasional blunders by the indexer, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada is a great field guide for beginners. Beautifully illustrated with hundreds of watercolor paintings and full of interesting natural history tidbits. That's enough rambling for today. Hope you enjoy the photos. Don't forget, you can click twice on each photo for closer views and a caption in the upper left corner of each one.

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