Fancy Names for Ordinary Stuff

Years ago, while visiting my sister in Massachusetts, I discovered on one of her bookshelves a book with the unlikely title Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons. Gibbons had already become famous as an advocate for foraging wild food, but this was my first encounter with any of his books. I don’t know how much of it I read during that visit, but I know that I read this passage:

Years ago, I was very impatient with anyone using a long Latin name to designate a common, ordinary plant. I considered the use of these tongue-twisting titles to be an affectation, designed to show off the knowledge of the user. Why couldn’t these high-brows use the common name, which everyone understood?

I think it was the Pigweed, more than anything else, that cured me of this attitude. Pigweeds are among the commonest of the unwanted plants in fields, gardens and barnyards in Pennsylvania. Therefore, I was not surprised to find that pigweeds were also common in Indiana, when I traveled there. I learned that farmers in Tennessee, Texas, New Mexico, California and even Hawaii were troubled with pigweeds. Obviously these farmers should get together and learn some way of controlling this troublesome weed. The only difficulty with this procedure was that, in each of these localities, the “pigweed” was a different kind of plant. To complicate matters even more, ‘Chenopodium album’, the pigweed of Pennsylvania, also grew in all these other places. In some sections it was called Lamb’s Quarters, in some Goosefoot and in still other it was referred to as Wild Spinach.

I began to see why the botanical classification was necessary. Many totally different plants are called pigweed in some parts of the world. The plant I call pigweed is known by dozens of other common or folk names in different places. Therefore any attempt to use the common name in distant places would only lead to confusion. But I can say ‘Chenopodium album’ and a trained botanist from any part of the world would instantly know the precise plant meant. Far from confounding the confusion, these Latin names greatly simplify the task of communication in this area.

More than that, the botanical name can tell me more about the plant in question than even the most descriptive common name ever could. If I had never seen this particular plant, the name ‘Chenopodium’ should tell me that this weed is a member of the same family to which garden beets and spinach belong. If I don’t have this knowledge at my fingertips, I can easily look it up in any botanical manual. About this time I’ll begin to suspect this plant might be good to eat.

— Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, 1962

I was reminded of this book and this passage some years later when I discovered that when our friends in Middle Tennessee talked about “buttercups” they were talking about what I call “daffodils” (Narcissus spp). I have no idea what they call the plant I call “buttercup” (Ranunculus spp.). So, yes, I think Gibbons makes sense, and largely because of what he said I try to remember to add the “scientific name” whenever I mention a plant or animal by the common name that I know.

But over the past few years I’ve run into a few problems with this practice. Lately I’ve been noticing plants that have more than one “scientific name”. The Trumpet vine, for example, might be listed as Campsis radicans, or Bignonia radicans, or Tecoma radicans. I think this is a bit confusing, but it seems that botanists and zoologists aren’t overly troubled. In any case, searching by any of those names will bring you to the same result.

Giving “scientific” names in my little stories isn’t intended to make me look smart — I have to look up every one of those names because I don’t actually know very many of them — it’s just my attempt to be precise.

[My thanks to Matthew (the “CuriousFarmer”) for commenting on his very similar reaction to Gibbons’ words, and including the text cited above in his post:]

Some notes on the naming of plants:


Bench and Cushion

21 June 2017, Chicago, Illinois

On a visit to the museum of the Art Institute of Chicago a few years ago we noticed this bench, and near it a plaque identifying the designer as Edward J. Wormley.

Wooden bench with cotton/rayon cushion

Bench and Cushion, designed by Edward J Wormley

Sometimes I get a bit more interested in things when I think that I feel a connection, no matter how tenuous, with someone, or something, or some place. I knew about Wormley and his connection to my home town through my friend Margaret Carney, whose father had been a life-long friend of his.

Edward Wormley was born in Oswego, Illinois, 31 December 1907, but his family moved to Rochelle when he was two years old. He graduated from Rochelle Township High School in 1926 and entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, leaving after only three terms because of lack of money. His career in furniture design began in the design studio of Marshall Field & Co. shortly after he left SAIC, then continued a few years later at Dunbar Furniture, where he became design director. It was not long before he had established his own design company, with Dunbar Furniture as his client. See the references at the bottom of this page for more details and description of his long and illustrious career.

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Descriptive plaque for the Wormley bench

Edward J. Wormley
American, 1907-1995

Bench and Cushion
New York, New York
Cherry, plywood, and cotton/rayon

A former student of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Edward J. Wormley combined stylistic elements of historical furniture with modern ideas to create imaginative designs. Although it lacks decoration, this diminutive bench incorporates the graceful curves of early 19th-century neoclassical forms such as the Grecian couch or klismos chair. Made as one of a pair, this rare piece was most likely a custom design that was never put into production.

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Morris S. Werden through the Antiquarian Society, 2000.14


Bench and Cushion, designed by Edward J Wormley

For further information on Edward Wormley:

Edward J Wormley and Edward Crouse Papers, 1831-1997 (bulk 1907-1997)
Collection Number: 7684 at Cornell University Library

Record of Wormley’s designs sold at auction

Wormley in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago

Edward Wormley: The other face of modernism : an exhibition of mid-century furniture designs, February 20 to March 16, 1997 at the Lin-Weinberg Gallery, 84 Wooster Street, New York City, New York: The Gallery, 1997.

Marie Ferran Wabbes, Wormley Dunbar: Edward J Wormley. 1905-1997. Design Director of Dunbar Furniture, translated by Caroline Sunderland de Moubray, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; Translation edition, 2017.

There are many additional resources, including photographs of many of his designs, available on the Internet.

Meet Some of the Neighbors

Clarksburg, West Virginia, 29 June 2019

Today a couple of our neighbors dropped by while I was pulling weeds in the back yard, but they don’t seem to have intended to visit.

Furry brown animal, a young Groundhog (Marmota monax),  among green plants next to a tree stump beyond a low wall

Groundhog (Marmota monax)

The two juvenile Groundhogs (Marmota monax), or Woodchucks if you prefer, were hurrying along the bluestone walk below our lower wall and didn’t notice me until I said “Hello”. They, of course, immediately froze and stared at me. One of them apparently decided it was too risky to be so close to me, turned around and fled. The other seems to have thought it would be safe as long as it managed to look like a statue. He or she didn’t move while I tried to get a decent photograph, but ran off when I moved around a little bit too much.

As long as we’ve lived here a family of Groundhogs has been in residence under our neighbors’ old shed, amidst an old woodpile and a clump of trees and other miscellaneous plants at our property line, and so Groundhogs are not an uncommon sight in our yard. I’ve seen them scurry from time to time into our garden to liberate a tomato or a squash, then quickly return home. A couple of years ago a young one ran under Lisa’s chair while she was sitting on the back porch. I’ve tried to take pictures, but they have never stood still long enough. They have steadfastly ignored my requests that they predict the length of winter.

This spring the neighbors took their old shed down, and now I don’t know where the family is living. I think they’ve moved into a small clump of weeds and brush a couple of houses away, still at the edge of our property, but there are a couple of woodpiles available as well.

Anyway, I was glad to see these two young ones enjoying a short morning canter across our yard.

Inviting All Hummingbirds

Clarksburg, West Virginia, 17 June 2019

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans)

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans)

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), also known as Trumpet Creeper, Common Trumpet Creeper, Cow Vine, Foxglove Vine, Hellvine, and Devil’s Shoestring. For some reason, it’s also been blessed with two additional “scientific” names, Bignonia radicans and Tecoma radicans.

I have been told that this native of the Eastern United States can be very invasive. and gardening experts recommend pruning it each year to keep it from taking over the yard, and the trees. We haven’t noticed that behavior — so far what the deer don’t trim back over the course of the summer, the cold trims back in the winter.

The blooms are said to attract hummingbirds and “long tongued bees” (CLICK), and it’s the larval host plant for the Plebeian Sphinx or Trumpet Vine Sphinx Moth (Paratraea plebeja, CLICK), which, unfortunately, I’ve never seen.

I took this picture on Sunday the 17th. Some time on Saturday, the 22nd, some kid apparently needed to try out his machete and chopped this vine to pieces, hacking off all the flowers and buds, and possibly killing one of the larger stems. The plant, of course, will survive. But, alas, a significant part of this year’s bloom won’t happen.

For more information about this plant, see

Is Summer Here?

Clarksburg, West Virginia, 17 June 2019

Summer must be here; the Beebalm is in bloom!

Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma)

Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma)

Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma), also known as Oswego Tea and Red Bergamot. This is an important source of food for our local pollinators, including hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees.

We planted a few pots of these flowers several years ago, but most seemed to have died by the next year, and those that lived didn’t show much sign of anything beyond bare survival. Until last summer, when a small population of tiny Beebalms appeared, scattered among the grass. This year they seem to be developing into an extremely healthy little patch, a flash of scarlet in our side yard.

I hope this pleases the local swarm of beasts.

For further information, see: