My introduction to the common name confusion happened when I was fairly young. A plant my grandmother called “Gabriel’s trumpet” was called “jimson weed” by others. Both are accurate common names for datura stromonium. Personally I think Gabriel’s trumpet is a better name. Those who ingest the plant or anything made from it will probably here that trumpet soon after. It is deadly.
That isn’t the only plant problem. Amaryllis belladonna and atropa belladonna can be just as confusing. There are two differences here. One is the fact that both plants have other words associated with them. The other is that these are their formal names.
How are plants named? It’s easy to figure out how plants get their common names. People (usually groups of people) find a plant useful and assign it a name so it can be recognized. If one set of people is in Maine and the other set is in Washington (state), those names may not be the same. In fact, they may not even be remotely similar. If you ask someone in Washington to show you a grape, they could show you an Oregon grape, and the two are not related.
How did plants get scientific names? We can thank Carl von Linn (AKA Linnaeus) for the classifications that give us individual Latin (usually) names for plants and animals. This was done about 250 years ago, and it can really help clear up the common name confusion.
Some plants, like the sugar maple, get their names from one or more common names. The sugar maple’s scientific name is acer (maple) saccharum (sugar). This sets it apart from other members of the maple family.
What to look for: This isn’t a problem when we’re dealing with gardens, trees and grasses. However, when it comes to herbs and some unusual flowers it can be. Moonflowers are a good example. The seed packet shows a pretty, white, trumpet shaped flower. However, if you look at the scientific name on the packet you can see it says datura inoxia. This places it firmly in the plant family mentioned in the first paragraph…and it is just as deadly.
How to use this information: If you are new to herbs and alternative remedies, make sure to look up the name of the plant you want to use. Find out what plant family it’s from…get the scientific name. Then talk to someone who knows herbs. Ask how to use it properly. Ask whether or not it can be used in the way you wish. Some plants are good on the skin but dangerous if swallowed.
Always check with your doctor before starting any new herb. There are medical conditions that can be made worse by some herbs and there are drug/herb interactions. Your doctor and pharmacist know your medical history and what you are currently taking and that can prevent serious problems.