It’s been 46 years since I took a class on local plants from Jim Horton, then head of the biology department at Western Carolina University. I loved learning the names of the flowers I saw blooming along the roadside, and I found out that I was good at remembering the two-part scientific names.
While I enjoyed the plants’ Latin words, I didn’think much about why they are needed until I moved to Canada community. I was working on Tommy Beutell’s Christmas tree farm, and, as we moved from field to field, I discovered a whole new set of common names that didn’t match up with the ones I’d learned in class two years before. Most of this new information came from my closest neighbor, L.C. Brown, who often gave me rides to work.
Kalmia latifolia, a shrub that’s blooming now along N.C. 281 and Charleys Creek Road, is a good example. Turns out what I’d learned as “mountain laurel” was known locally as “ivy,” something I associated with the vine that climbs brick buildings on college campuses.
Early botanists realized the necessity of creating a system that would eliminate such ambiguity. Plant names would be determined, they decided, through a system of binomial nomenclature (two names). Each plant would get a genus name, shared with close relatives, as well as its own descriptive species name. By putting the two together, each would have its own unique name. Scientists chose Latin for the names of all plant (and animal) species because it was no longer in use and therefore not subject to change.
This all came flooding back the other day, when someone asked if a particular bush was a laurel or a rhododendron. The shrub in question is a member of the heath family, one of our most well-represented (and most confusing) vegetative groups. When someone who grew up around here says “laurel,” they are usually talking about Rhododendron maximum, a broad-leafed evergreen that sports pale pink flowers late June to mid-July, rather than the above-mentioned K. latifolia that has smaller, cup-shaped flowers and is blooming now. If they mean the showier purple rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) that blooms in profusion in late May and early June up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, they say “purple laurel.”
The ivy that is a vine is Hedera helix, which is very different from the ivy they talk about in Canada. If you ever hear someone talk about “breaking ivy,” remember that K. latifolia (a.k.a. mountain laurel) is a sturdy shrub that has historically been used to supplement farming income – limbs of the evergreen were bundled and sold for use by florists.
And if you hear talk of honeysuckle furniture, a popular Mountain Heritage Day item, don’t think of the honeysuckle that’s a prolific vine with sweet-smelling flowers. Mountaineers say “honeysuckle” when they mean another rhododendron species – R. calen dulaceum, better known as flame azalea.
We don’t have to limit ourselves to the hard-to-name heaths to find confusing plant monikers. Calycanthus floridus, an attractive brownish-flowered shrub, is called both “sweetshrub” and “bubby.” Eupatorium maculatum, a familiar part of the late-summer landscape, is known either as “joe-pye weed” or “queen-of-the-meadow.”
You might think trees would be easier to pinpoint, but they’re not.
Our earliest blooming native tree, Amelanchier arborea, is variously called “sarvis,” serviceberry,” “juneberry” and “shadbush.” The one that waits until November to display its spidery yellow blossoms is Hammemelis virginiana, called witch hazel in most books but known locally as “beadwood.” Silverbells (Halesia carolina), which put on an attractive display in early May, are also known as “box elders.”
And then there are the oak trees. I’ve heard Quercus coccinea called both “scarlet oak” and “Spanish oak” while Quercus rubra var. borealis is known either as “mountain oak” or “northern red oak.” Horton used to tell us to remember the oaks’ genus name by thinking “queer cuss,” a description he said was accurate because of the oak family’s many peculiarities.
“A rose is a rose is a rose,” wrote poet Gertrude Stein, while William Shakespeare told us that “a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet,” and asked “What’s in a name?”
Those two should have done some local research. Shakespeare would have learned that honeysuckle by another name does not good furniture make, and that precise names serve to eliminate a lot of floral confusion.
And, if Stein had been in Sylva instead of Paris, she might be remembered for saying, “A Kalmia is a laurel is an ivy.”
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.