Botanical Terms

NOMENCLATURE: The nomenclature I stick to in the Compendium is Latin. Anyone with a serious interest in plants really must buckle down and learn the Latin names. Common names are at least misleading and at worst dangerous. More than one species can share the same common name or any given species can have more than one. I have illustrated this by including them in both the body of this work as well as the cross-indexes found on my website. In Ancestral Airs I used common names simply because they are poetic.

Unfortunately there are quite a few attempts to classify plants in Latin. Americans have theirs; the British have their own. Names from older systems endure in spite of more contemporary efforts. Consequently for my own understanding I classified everything according to Hortus III. Where names came up from other systems I noted them in the Latin cross-index with the abbreviation syn. (synonymous). When an entry includes the abbreviation spp. next to the plant name it merely means that more than one variety is listed.

I find that an indispensable work on nomenclature is the Dictionary of Plant Names by Allen J. Coombes, reprinted by Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 1995.

TOXICITY: First of all I am not a toxicologist. Secondly, after a half a century of studying plants I believe it’s safe to assume that every plant on Earth might be toxic to someone somewhere. For example, hollyhocks make me wheezy and itchy. I consider that a toxic reaction even though I don’t personally know anyone else who has this response to hollyhocks. Most everyone has been made aware of the potentially deadly properties of peanut for some people. Yet countless millions, including myself eat peanuts with no ill effects whatsoever. Consequently anytime, anywhere I read a notation that somewhere someone found a species toxic I flagged it. I made no attempt to validate the assertion. When I discovered a plant known to be deadly dangerous I noted it. But in no way is it to be assumed I found them all. It is only safe to assume that they are all toxic until you personally discover otherwise. I must emphasize that dangerous plants should not be cultivated in family gardens. They can kill you, your children or your pets. Nor should they be collected from the wild under any circumstances. The mere handling of Conium (hemlock) or Sium (water dropwort), for examples can be fatal, their poisons absorbed easily through the skin.

I really soul-searched about poisonous plants. I finally settled on the omission of Atropa, Berula, Cicuta, Conium, Cuscuta, Oenanthe, Sium, Aethusa, Hyoscyamus, and Mercurialis, all deadly. I have included Aconitum, Daphne, Digitalis, and Paris, among others because they are available as garden specimens. In my mind they are no less deadly dangerous and should be entirely omitted from some gardens.

CONTINENT: My personal studies have been limited to the British Isles. When I use the delineation “Europe” the reader can assume that the species can be found somewhere in the British Isles but is not necessarily limited to that location. It is highly possible, even probable that the same species can be found in continental Europe as well, even though many species native to the continent are not indigenous to the British Isles. There were countless species introduced by invaders and opportunists that are now commonly found in the British Isles either in gardens or naturalized as garden escapes. The objective of my work has been to understand what the indigenous hunter-gatherers of the British Isles had at their disposal. Therefore, all species I found referenced as introduced have been excluded, some regrettably.

When the term North Temperate Zone is used it means that I found the species in Europe, Asia, and North American. Again I used Hortus III as my guide. The lack of information regarding the properties of many species of the British Isles required that I study the applications found in diverse systems and resort to informed speculation where necessary. I have made no effort to definitively determine if such a species was indigenous or introduced to these other locales. For example when I scrutinized Iroquois and Cherokee medicine I found a remarkable number of species that were introduced to them, plants native to Europe and even a few from Asia, but not indigenous to North America.

The terms Eurasia or Europe/North America are self-explanatory. Europe and Asia seem to share quite a few species as does Europe and North America. Isn’t it tantalizing to speculate that some species evolved before the Ural Mountains and Himalayas thrust up their barriers or that others evolved prior to Continental Drift?

HABITAT: When I began Ancestral Airs I was convinced that every ecosystem in which a people evolved or settled was complete for their needs of food, clothing, shelter, medicine and spirituality; even the least diverse, the acidic habitats didn’t disappoint me.

In my work I assigned each plant to a specific habitat. Please don’t assume that that species or its relatives exist only where I have placed them. Plants are amazing; most succeed because they are capable of adapting and many evolved relatives that can be found thriving in a wide range of habitats. When choosing a species, investigate the habitat requirements of your selections for the greatest success and harmony in your garden.

ACIDIC WOODS & MOUNTAINS. Not all forests are found in mountains or are all mountains forested, especially above the snowline where only alpine species can be found. Acidic woods and mountains can also contain areas of wet bogs and moors or drier areas of heathland. In Ancestral Airs I drew distinctions between the three although all can be found in acidic woods and mountains. Soil found in these forests is composed primarily of old, decomposed rock such as granite (pH 3.5 or less). Pronounced drainage and poor nutrient quality limits the species tolerant of this range.

ACIDIC MOORS & BOGS. Bogs are exceedingly wet and generally waterlogged. Moors can be thought of as raised drier areas within bogs. Waterlogged material does not readily decompose because of the lack of oxygen and single-cell organisms needed for that process. The accumulation of material eventually becomes sphagnum.

HEATHLAND. Heathland is composed of dry, highly acidic soil, primarily peat.

ALKALINE WOODS & MOUNTAINS. The lime-rich soil of the alkaline range (about pH 7) is extremely nutritious and affords tremendous diversity. It can also contain areas of chalk grasslands as well as fens and marshy meadows.

FENS & MARSHY MEADOWS. Fens and marshy meadows are the wet areas of the alkaline range. Fens like bogs are constantly wet. However, marshy meadows might only be seasonally wet because of spring thaws or rainy seasons.

GRASSLANDS. Grasslands are the great, sweeping meadows of the alkaline range.

COAST. The coast is composed of several systems within the larger ecology referred to as the coast. One can find grasslands as well as salt marshes there. Beaches can lay down sand or scree. Different species grow in each. The division of systems is based on the amount of time each day an area is submerged and the consequent determination of the species that can be found in each. Tidal rivers dump into bays and oceans. The banks and deltas of these where salt and fresh water mingle daily afford additional unique habitats.

For extensive habitat information and species identification I highly recommend The Wild Flower Key-British Isles and NW Europe by Francis Rose, published by Penguin Books in 1981. Other references I include are The A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants by the American Horticulture Society and the Encyclopedia of Water Plants by Jiri Stodola.