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Content of a Plant Biography
THE PRIMARY ENTRY for a genus or individual species appears under the plant's scientific/botanical name.
Other than the botanical/scientific name all information is in plain language. One or two points might be worth mentioning as an indication of the often unappreciated confusion (unappreciated by us non-botanists) which can arise from the wording in botanical texts in books on the general market – aside from any lack of knowledge of terminology on the part of the reader. Those of us who are non-professionals in the plant world view :
Weeds in the Wild
On the other hand ‘wild’ for botanists means plant species growing naturally in their native habitat. These do not embrace what are known to professionals as ‘garden’ or ‘cultivated escapes’ (alien plant species which have managed to disperse themselves and are not native to that region/area), or naturalized species (those which have been introduced to a region/area by the wind, water currents, birds, animals, man, etc., and have adapted to their surroundings to the point where they do not need help from man). Although we, the general public, might know no better and look upon both of these examples as ‘wild’ (since that is where they are growing), botanical specialists would be horrified at such thoughts and would either refer to the specimens as ‘garden escapes’ or ‘naturalized species’.
Botanically however ‘herbs’ embraces all plants which have no woody stems above ground and which die back at the end of their growing period.
Both terms ‘weed’ and‘herb’ will rarely be found in these Entries not least because the words might preclude further curiosity for some readers and, in any event, can vary in meaning in everyday language from country to country and for the individual reader.
Leaf or Leaflet
A botanist will refer, for example, to a pinnate leaf which consists of leaflets. For the layman however the leaflet IS the leaf – and there are even occasions when botanists themselves will debate whether a leaf is just that or is actually a leaflet.
Finally while on the subject of terminology it should be mentioned that
2. Botanical Names
A brief explanation of the botanical name might be helpful. Under the Linnaean classification families of plants are divided into genera (plural) and each genus (singular) will contain one or more species of plant. An example from the Biographies illustrates the presentation of a genus and two of its species (‘species’ is both singular or plural) :
Achillea is the name of the Genus.
In the case of Achillea ageratum, the bracketed Achillea decolorans, Achillea serrata, Balsamita faemina are synonyms for Achillea ageratum. Similarly Achillea eupatorium, Achillea filicifolia, Tanacetum angulatum are synonyms for Achillea filipendulina.
Achillea ageratum and Achillea filipendulina are usually referred to as the scientific (or botanical) names of the species.
NOTE: The example above may not be precisely the same as the current entry now eg. further botanical synonyms could have been included and perhaps others omitted as the entry is maintained and updated over time.
3. Information Order
An explanation of the genus name is provided when possible and is written in plain language. In some cases differences of opinion on derivation offered by various authorities are given. Other information relevant to that genus as a whole may also be presented. It should be noted that all the species in that genus have not necessarily been researched and included as yet.
Additional scientific/botanical names ie. synonyms, continue to be collected and updated as they emerge during research. These synonyms include incorrect spellings (or even incorrect attribution) as well as additional scientific names which have been used for the plant at one time or another. Incorrect spellings aside there can be several reasons for the existence of synonyms – and, one might add, the actual or seeming application of a scientific name to more than one plant.
The botanical name of an individual species (and any synonyms) is immediately followed by a common name (which may not be the one by which you know it, but it is used consistently in this text), reference to the region of origin, and a descriptive term for the plant eg. tree, shrub, perennial, cactus, fern, etc. This is supported by a minimal description eg. large green leaves and crimson-centred, white to sulphur-yellow flowers.
The next paragraph lists any other common names by which the plant can be known, very many in languages other than English and it will be appreciated that this list can never be considered to be exhaustive. It should be noted too that :
i) many of the English names can be more common in Britain, North America, or localized areas of English-speaking countries, but these are not normally distinguished from other English names as the dominance of use would often be debatable.
The harvesting and preserving of plants is described in many entries provided the methods are generally continue today. This is not only of interest for culinary, medicinal or commercial purposes but also when the methods are unusual
The warnings noted are meant to be just that. [Precise information can be sought from technical or academic sources.] There are some plants which are lethal to man and/or beast. Most of us are aware of one or two which might create problems of one kind or another but it would probably be reasonable to suggest that we are blissfully ignorant of most of them. The majority of warnings in these entries describe or refer to what ‘can’ happen not what ‘will’ happen if the plant is handled or ingested. Some warnings will have been passed down from generation to generation without recorded proof; others will have been confirmed in the West by scientific analysis. Tolerance of or reaction to a plant’s chemical content can sometimes vary dramatically from person to person (especially if allergies are involved) or between an adult and a child (not least because of the difference in their size and maturity). In addition, the plant’s own chemicals can sometimes alter in strength significantly from one local area to the next, let alone change under regional, seasonal or climatic conditions – see black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) . The word poison ie. toxin (which sounds even more formidable) can apply to reactions ranging from ‘a mild transient itch' or ‘temporary skin discoloration’ to ‘permanent disability’ or 'death'. The individual cases normally make this clear. Some plants are likely to offer danger only if used to an unbelievable excess. [Who could imagine why anybody would wish to go to the trouble of collecting apple pips sufficient in quantity to be a danger to swallow or that, having collected them, they would then want or could manage to consume the large number required.] But the entries do illustrate that if you, like me, are not a plant specialist, it may not be wise to try out something picked from the hedgerow (or even your own garden if you did not plant it yourself) for, say, a herbal tea, flavouring, vegetable, fruit or medicine without an expert's advice – as identifying the right species is not as straightforward as it would sometimes appear. The warnings also indicate that herbal food recipes and medicinal remedies should be treated with as much respect as say Western medicine prescribed by a qualified practitioner. I suspect that although some of the warnings will be unexpected it is unlikely that awareness of them will alter many of our habits materially. For example, for those who have long cooked rhubarb (having discarded the leaves without thought) the entry on Garden rhubarb (Rheum x hybridum) could come as quite a surprise.
Greater interest in wild plants is leading to a curiosity about gathering them from the wild for food. Many suitable benign plants are included and are of particular importance in this context as their appearance can sometimes be confused with that of harmful ones. As these confusions have emerged during research they have been included in the appropriate entry(ies).
Mention has already been made of conservation. Most of us are aware that some plants are protected under Preservation Orders – but which ones if we are to attempt to avoid harming them through ignorance? Some information on this is provided – however any information on the precise location of such plants is omitted.
Explanations of both the species and common name(s) follow. That for the species name is provided when possible and may even offer alternatives which are open to debate, especially in the botanical world. Here (as with genus) the species’ definition is written in plain language and, unlike other species’ definitions available, much more information is often provided. For instance, when the name refers to a place its geographic location may be given or, for a person, a brief biography has been written – and, if that person is particularly well-known, it will include interesting lesser-known facts.) Explanations of common names tend to be included only when they may be of especial interest.
Finally, and for me the most interesting part of any entry – the general information which accounts for two thirds of the project. This ranges across mythology, history, social behaviour, custom, environmental impact, economics, art, design, literature and poetry, music, songs, dance, witchcraft, symbolism, culinary practice, mining, transport, engineering, architecture, chemicals, religion, emblems, superstition, materials, dentistry, hairdressing, medicine, genetics, perfumes, needlwork, musical instruments, treaties, archaeology, etc. (see Subjects Covered on the Website and the General Index Summary preceding the General Index at the back of the CD.). Authors have paid many of us a compliment in their belief that we will recall or know more than we actually do about individuals, peoples or tribes, places and events connected with a plant eg. Benjamin Franklin, Dioscorides, the Henganofi, the California Gold Rush, the Camargue in France, and make passing references to these. In this Project I have taken the liberty of qualifying them, when information is known, as it helps to draw a clearer picture of the plant's role.
ALL material is subject to Copyright.