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Latin Names, Common Flowers
by Dave Anderson for NHPR's "Something Wild"

When used outside the halls of academia and horticultural societies, proper biological names of plants – Latin names – can alienate the public as surely as formal religious services recited in…. Latin.

General audiences prefer common names.

A few exquisite exceptions return in spring: Latin names which rhyme like couplets...

The rhyming Latin name of the “Maidenhair fern” – “Adiantum pedantum” – sounds just as lovely as its preferred habitat. Maidenhair fern grows in lush, moist, enriched forest coves. It’s rare in the stingy acid soils of the granite state and more common to the forests of Vermont.

“Trientalis borealis” is the rhyming couplet for a diminutive, seven-petal wildflower in the primrose family most people call by its common name: “starflower”

I associate starflower with “aurora borealis” – the northern lights, glowing in a night sky full of starflowers.

More often, common names sound more poetic than Latin botanical names. The common name for “Pink Lady Slipper” or moccasin flower is Cypripedium, Greek for “Venus’s slipper” referring to the shape of this orchid-family blossom.

“Jack in the Pulpit” is also called “Indian Turnip.” Both sound more reverent and palatable (although the plant is inedible) than “Arisaema triphyllum.”

“Trillium” is also “trillium” by common name each May. The same is true for “Asters” in September. I like these two native wild flowers as much for their simplicity and honesty as the way they bracket the beauty of the spring and summer wildflower season.

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