What’s in a Name? Juliet’s Rose and the Science of Naming

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
– Romeo and Juliet, (II, ii, 47-48)

Juliet may have been on to something here, lamenting Romeo’s familial allegiances while he skulks below her in the shadows. “What’s Montague?” she says, “it is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man” (II, ii, 45-46). This attitude, a willingness to look past her family’s prejudices and see the man that Romeo is, beyond his name, makes Juliet a great romantic.

But it would’ve made her an awful scientist.

Good science, and by extension good scientific writing, occludes confusion by being tediously specific. Scientific writing tends to be devoid of metaphor, simile, or any other forms of figurative language. Most scientists are even a little bit afraid of a good evocative verb (although we’re allowed to write ‘masticate’ instead of ‘chew’, which is sort-of fun). The purpose of this fuss-budget writing, other than to make scientific papers blindingly boring to read, is to avoid confusion. A sentence should have only one meaning and not be open to interpretation.

So when it comes to science, everything is in a name. Every species on Earth has a name, which applies to it, and to no other species. These names all take on the same, two-part structure: Genus species. The first part of the name gives the genus to which the species belongs, for example Homo. The second part of the name identifies a specific species within that genus, for example sapiens. Combined together, this two-part name grants a unique identifying tag to every species, which is universally identifiable by scientists regardless of their native language. For example, Homo sapiens – humans.

This system, called ‘binomial nomenclature’, allows scientists to communicate about specific species. This is important because many different species have the same common name. As an example, lets consider Juliet’s rose. Roses, as we think of them, are not a species but a genus – the genus Rosa. All roses are identified by the traits that they share. Some of these are obvious (sickle-shaped thorns, the number of petals, and the type of fruit – a rosehip), and some of them are the sorts of thing that only excite botanists (alternate pinnate leaves with serrated leaflets and basal stipules. Yawn.). Those are traits shared by all roses in the genus Rosa.

But within that genus, there are at least 100 species of rose.

What type of rose was Juliet talking about? The play is set in Verona, in Northern Italy, so maybe Juliet was speaking about Rosa gallica, the French Rose. It was (and remains today) a widely cultivated species native to southern Europe. She was probably not referring to Rosa californica, native to, obviously, California. In Romeo and Juliet it doesn’t really matter. But scientists need to be able to determine exactly which species their colleagues are referring to – a problem that took over a thousand years to be solved.

Beginning with Aristotle, natural historians struggled to label species in a way that was both descriptive and simple. The problem of the roses arose (hah) quickly; it wasn’t long before the people categorizing organisms realized that the same local name was used in many different places to refer to many different species. So scientists gave up on the idea of trying to be simple, and focused on being descriptive: species were given polynomial names that became increasingly more complex as more species were discovered.

Unique or strange species would be easy to name. For example, if we were to make up a descriptive name for the aye-aye, we could call it “long-fingered nocturnal lemur”. The animal is strange enough, and shares few enough traits with other species, that it is easy to hone in on a unique identifier. But that becomes more difficult when considering species that have fewer uncommon characteristics. Consider the hoary plantain, a small flower native to Western Europe. The hoary plantain illustrates both the problem of common names – it is in no way related to plantains, the banana-type vegetable that is a staple food item throughout the Tropics – and the problems that arose with polynomial names.

The hoary plantain looks a lot like just about every other small flower in Western Europe. Finding a unique identifier is extremely difficult. So in the days before binomial nomenclature, the hoary plantain was identified using an absurdly long and complex polynomial name: Plantago foliis ovato-lanceolatus pubescentibus, spica cylindrica, scapo tereti. Meaning, of course, “Plantain with pubescent ovate-lanceolate leaves, a cylindric spike and a terete scape”. The need for these complex names made classifying an ever-growing number of species virtually impossible.

And then along came Carl Linnaeus.

Carl, who later got carried away with his own brilliance and Latinized his name to Carolus, was a Swedish botanist who revolutionized biology and invented modern taxonomy (the classification of species). He grew up in Sweden, and lived most of his life there, teaching botany during the week, and rampaging through the countryside collecting plants and animals in his spare time. (I’ve seen the field kit he used to collect samples and it looks like a portable version of Frankenstein’s lab). He lived abroad between 1735 and 1738, before returning home to Sweden for the rest of his life. But it was while he was away from Sweden and living in Amsterdam that Linnaeus made his first major contribution to science.

Linnaeus was a popular lecturer and a dedicated teacher, and like many scientists, a bit fussy. The polynomial system of names frustrated him: it was inefficient and inaccurate. In his travels around Sweden, he had begun to develop a new way of categorizing plants by subdividing them into categories based on shared physical characteristics. On one of these trips, he found the jawbone of a small animal and experienced a revelation: the same categorization could be applied to animals too, based on number and structure of teeth.

In Amsterdam, Linnaeus began compiling these categorizations into a book, the Systema Naturae. He listed the species of animal and plants he was familiar with alongside their complex, polynomial names. Then, beside each name, he wrote a simple binomial name – one generic term (the genus), and one specific (the species). These he then lumped into higher categories according to their physical characteristics. The first edition of Systema Naturea, published using a loan from a friend in 1735, was only 12 pages long.

But it was a hit. The simple way of classifying animals, and the strict consistency of Linnaeus’s naming, became instantly popular in the scientific community. Scientists, students, and natural historians fanned out across the globe, sending Linnaeus samples of plants and animals to be included in his naming scheme. When the 10th edition of Systema Naturae was released in 1758, Linnaeus had classified over 7000 species of plant and over 4000 species of animal, and invented the hierarchical system of organization that biologists still use today: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.

Under Linnaeus’s scheme, the hoary plantain became Plantago media, and life got a whole lot simpler. Scientific names today are the best place for researchers to actually indulge in a little creativity. Sometimes they’re clever (Apopyllus now, a species of sac spider found on Curacao), sometimes they’re juvenile (Batrachuperus longdongensis, a salamander), and sometimes they’re oxymoronic (Mammuthus exilis, the pygmy mammoth), but they’re always unique to one individual species.

Binomial nomenclature allowed scientists to begin categorizing, and from there understanding, the organization of life. It is one of the most important inventions in the history of science. But we should be glad Shakespeare never heard of it. “That which we call a Rosa gallica by any other word would smell as sweet” isn’t very poetic.


Originally posted at

Featured photo by flickr user Fotos4RR


The Life and Death of the Largest Tree in the World

“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”

– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

On March 24th, 1991, in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California, a tremendous crash rent the quiet spring air. Park rangers over a mile away feared the worst. Had a train derailed? The rail bridge over the Eel River had seen better days, and most of the tracks were in need of repair. Rangers, park stuff, and curious onlookers rushed to the site of the noise. The bridge was intact, and there was no sign of a derailed train. But just south of the river a giant had fallen. The Dyerville Giant, a California coast redwood, and probably the largest tree in the world, had reached the end of its life.

The Dyerville Giant had been having a bad week. It was the rainy season, and the soil in the forest was saturated with water, creating a shifting, roiling, muddy base for the tree to stand in. The shallow root system it used to anchor itself in the ground was becoming exposed, and the winds whipping around its canopy – 370 ft above the forest floor – pulled and pushed 24 hours a day. A smaller tree had given up a few days earlier, crashing to the forest floor, but not before knocking other trees into precarious positions, like a gigantic domino. One of those dominos was left teetering ominously towards the Dyerville Giant. On March 24th, the leaning tree fell, and took the giant down with it.

The scene of the fallen giant must have looked, as well as sounded, like a train wreck. The shockwave created by the impact had disturbed the forest up to four hundred feet away, and splattered mud and debris nearly three storeys high on the trunks of surrounding trees. In the blink of an eye, the largest tree in the world was down. At the time it fell, the Dyerville Giant was 372 ft tall – far taller than the Statute of Liberty (a petite 150 feet), and taller even than Niagara Falls. It was of another age, at least 1600 years old when it fell. When the Dyerville Giant was a seedling, pushing its way through the soil for the first time, the Visigoths were sacking Rome, and the Roman Empire was beginning its final decline.

As a sapling (at 65 ft, a tall sapling), while it struggled for light and nutrients in a forest crowded with taller relatives, Liu Yan was establishing the Han Dynasty in China, and a Hindu philosopher in India was writing the Kama Sutra. Every year, if growing conditions were right, it grew up to another six feet. It grew steadily through the years, as kingdoms of men appeared, expanded, grew corrupt, and fell apart. Great works of literature were written and lost. Art was produced, and burned. The Dyerville Giant stretched inexorably upwards.

In the 1860s, as the newly created country of America sought to tame the wildness of the American West, for the first time in its life the Dyerville Giant faced a threat other than wind and fire. Settlers in California quickly established the value of the coast redwood. The wood is light but strong, and resists decay. Its red sheen is beautiful, and perhaps most importantly, the wood doesn’t catch fire easily. In 1863, the Pacific Lumber Company was created, and its owners, A. W. McPherson and Henry Wetherbee purchased 6,000 acres of good redwood forest at $1.25 an acre. By 1882, the PLC was the largest employer in the area, and solely responsible for the growth and development of towns springing up all along the valleys of Northern California. By 1895, McPherson and Wetherbee had sold a controlling share in the company to a Detroit millionaire named Simon J. Murphy. The Murphy family would steward the Pacific Lumber Company for the next 100 years, and demonstrate a rare sense of ethical corporate management.

At the beginning of the 1900s, cosmopolitan Americans in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, were developing the first idea of a conservation ethic, focused on preserving some of the wildness of the American frontier. As a young country, America had a love-hate relationship with its untamed parts. The boundless forest and unexplored mountain ranges both mesmerized and frightened Americans. For pioneers, the wildness was an ugly thing to be tamed and controlled, but latter generations recognized that America’s wildness could be what established it as a unique country all of its own. Let Europe have its cathedrals and ruins, America’s forests would be its cathedrals; its mountains would be castles.

In 1917, the Save-the-Redwoods League travelled from San Francisco to Humboldt County to witness the majesty of the redwood forests. Amazed by what they saw, the League raised money and in 1921, Humboldt Redwoods State Park was established. Other companies might have seen this as an infringement, but Pacific Lumber worked with the conservationists. It both sold, and donated, land to the League for far less than it would have been made if they had cut the trees down. In the 1950s, Pacific Lumber pioneered the idea of selective logging and sustainable yield – rather than clear-cutting; they cut down only mature trees, allowing young trees to continue growing. The bulk of today’s Humboldt State Park is made up of the Pacific Lumber Company’s holdings.

It was at this time that the Dyerville Giant got its name. Dyerville had been a small town at the confluence of the North and South forks of the Eel River, just north of the giant. In the 1920s it was the site of the park headquarters, and beginning in the 1930s also the site of a Civilian Conservation Camp, established as part of the New Deal. The fortunes of the small community ebbed and flowed over the next 40 years, but its fate was decided decisively in 1964, when the Eel River overflowed its banks and swept the town downstream. Dyerville was never rebuilt, but the giant tree in the area gained a name, and today a plaque and a picnic area commemorate the former town site. By the time it was named, the growth of the giant had slowed considerably, and its height was estimated at around 360 feet.

On September 30, 1985, after a week of aggressive stock purchases, Pacific Lumber was taken over by Charles Hurwitz and Maxxam Inc., of Texas. Following the completion of the hostile takeover, the Murphy family resigned, and PLC took on a vastly different form. Hurwitz and Maxxam immediately reinstated clear-cutting. Environmental activists were outraged, and in 1990 Maxxam and the redwoods became a boiling point for protest. In an embarrassing collusion between government and industry, the FBI tried hard to label the protest group, Earth First!, a terrorist organization (a label that has remained largely successful). Protests continued against Maxxam’s clear-cutting for over a decade, to little effect. Eventually, karma had enough and stepped in – Pacific Lumber filed for bankruptcy. In twenty short-years, Hurwitz and Maxxam’s aggressive and unsustainable forestry had undone the Pacific Lumber’s reputation and dismantled the company that the Murphy family worked so hard to build.

The Dyerville Giant, of course, wasn’t around to see the end of Pacific Lumber. It fell in 1991, during the angriest years of the protest. It will lie where it fell for another 400 years, slowly decaying and returning its nutrients to the soil. While it decomposes, it will provide a home for over 4000 species of birds, plants, fungi, insects and animals – a diverse ecosystem in its own right, and essentially ensuring that the Dyerville Giant will live forever. As Edward Munch wrote, “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”

Originally posted at

Featured image by: Craig Wolf


Plants and Picket Lines

“All quiet along the Potomac”, they say,

Except now and then a stray picket

Is shot, as he walks on his beat, to and fro,

By a rifleman hid in the thicket

– ‘The Picket Guard’ (or, ‘All Quiet Along the Potomac’), Ethel Lynn Beers, 1861

 Three wars in the course of a century defined the North American continent: the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War. These were violent, bloody, civil conflicts where families and friends fought against one another and everyone knew someone on the other side. During these wars, the boundaries of an army’s encampment were patrolled by the picket line. Soldiers, alone or in pairs, stood watch on cold, dark nights in a scattered line around the camp, ready to alert the army if anyone attempted to cross the line. It was a dangerous and lonely job (although sometimes served well to highlight the ridiculousness of war – stories abound of Union and Confederate pickets set up within shouting distance of one another, jointly complaining about the quality of their sides rations).

The job of the picket was essential. In the time before radar, before satellite imagery, and before night-vision, the pickets were an army’s best early warning system. They could shout, light fires, and ring bells if the picket line was breached. But what do you do if you’re under attack from an enemy, but you can’t move, or talk? Then you have the same problem that a plant does.

We don’t often think of plants as having behaviours, but they do. Witness the way flowers change their orientation to track the movement of the sun across the sky, or the way vines and lianas seek light. Or, if you’re of a more sinister bent, the way Venus fly traps snap shut on their prey. These are all examples of behaviour – just because a plant can’t move, doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of complex behaviours. And in some ways, because plants are forced to be sedentary, their behaviour needs to be more complicated than that of animals.

If an animal meets a predator, it can run, or hide, or fight back. Plants are a little more limited in defence. They can’t run, and their ability to hide is limited. Mostly, plants defend themselves against herbivore predators by fighting back: they grow spines or spikes, like a cactus or a rose; or they produce toxins in their leaves.

This toxins, often called secondary compounds, give plants a bitter taste (generally in nature bitterness is a warning sign the same way that sweetness is enticing). The most common secondary compounds, called tannins, are naturally produced organic molecules made up of a series of phenols (mildly acid organic compounds also found in painkillers). Tannins reduce the ability of an animal to digest plant parts – hopefully because indigestion will teach the animal to avoid that plant in the future.

For the record, some animals don’t learn as well as others. Humans, in particular, love tannins. They’re what gives tea its colour, beer its bitterness, and red wine its astringent aftertaste.

You might think, given how effective plant toxins usually are at repelling predators (excluding humans), that plants might produce them all the time. But there’s a problem. Producing tannins and other toxins costs requires a large amount of energy – energy a plant would rather spend on growing flowers and fruits.  So most plants try to minimize the amount of toxins in their leaves, until they know a predator is near – then they rapidly increase the number of toxins they exude, hoping to dissuade the herbivore from munching on them.

However, if you’re not producing toxins until something is already eating you you’ve left it a little bit late. Luckily, plants have their own sort of early warning system – a complicated, underground network of symbiotic fungus that warns them when neighbouring plants come under attack.

Like an iceberg or that quiet kid in the back of the class, much of the life of a plant is carried out beneath the surface. In the root system, plants extract nutrients and moisture from the soil, and use those nutrients, combined with carbohydrates from photosynthesis, for their growth. But, plants are not very efficient. They’re actually quite poor when it comes to squeezing nutrients from dirt, so they rely on a helper. Most plant roots are covered in mycorrhizal fungi – long, stringy threads of fungus that work together with the roots. The fungi increase the surface area of the roots, allowing for more nutrient uptake, and in return the plant supplies the fungus with carbohydrates. Everybody wins. But the fungus provides another benefit.

The mycorrhizal fungi spread out over a much larger area than the plants roots do, and often mingle with the fungus connected to other plants. This fungus is the plants picket line. When one plant along the line is attacked by an herbivore, the fungus detects the attack, and passes a message to all of the other plants: “We’re under attack, you might be next, begin producing toxins.” The surrounding plants then have time to prepare their defences before the predators reach them. Without the fungus providing an early warning system, no plant in the area would have the time to raise its defences before being eaten. The first plant may die, but the picket line ensures that the rest of the plants will be prepared.

But the picket line isn’t always so benevolent. Mycorrhizal fungi are a bit promiscuous. They don’t favour specific plant species, and instead will attach to the roots of most plants. This creates a massive, underground network of interconnected plant species. In the event of attacks, this is good. But some plants have evolved to take advantage of this network by sending false signals down the line – messages that stunt the growth of other plants. One plant guilty of this deception may be lurking in your garden right now – the common marigold. It’s always the pretty ones.

Neil Griffin

This is a repost of an article I originally wrote for

Literature Cited

Babikova et al. 2013. Underground signals carried through common mycelial networks warn neighbouring plants of aphid attack. Ecology Letters doi: 10.1111/ele.12115

Barto et al. 2011. The fungal fast lane: common mycorrhizal networks extend bioactive zones of allelochemicals in soils. PLoS ONE 6: e27195.


Raffles and the Corpse Flower

One of the great joys of colonialism (I imagine for the colonist more than the colonized) was the freedom to name things after yourself. Step off the boat in your crisp, newly starched khaki clothes and pith helmet, pick the nearest flower (or shoot the nearest animal), and say, “I now proclaim this species (which has been known to the indigenous people of this region for many thousands of years) as newly discovered, by me, and therefore name it Newflowerii johnsmithus.” See a body of water or a mountain range? Name it after your preferred sovereign or a woman back home you’re trying to woo. Forget diamonds, nothing says “I love you” like a polar mountain.

But sometimes the freedom to immortalize your narcissism backfired, and your name ended up attached (in perpetuity) to something a little less flattering.

Thomas Stanford Bingley Raffles was an Englishman with a silly name, born in 1781. At 14, he began working for the British East India Company in what is now Malaysia, and spent the rest of his life in Southeast Asia. He traded, warred and explored his way around the region in the name of the British Empire, ‘discovering’ new species of plants and animals, and in 1819 he founded Singapore – a British trading post owned by the East India Company. Raffles adopted the title “Agent to the Most Nobel the Governor-General with the States of Rhio, Lingin, and Johor”, which was probably a bit hellish prior to the invention of copy-paste. In 1824 he returned to England, founded the London Zoo, and then died in 1826 at the age of 44 – the price exacted by a lifetime spent in the tropics. But his legacy lives on through his name.

Approximately every second building in Singapore is named after Raffles: the Raffles Hotel, Raffles Hospital, Raffles College, and on it goes. Even Singapore Air’s business class is named ‘Raffles Class’. I did not see any whorehouses named after Raffles last time I was in Singapore, but given that approximately every other second building in the city is a brothel, I’m sure some overlap exists.

The apogee of Raffles-mania is surely the Rafflesia, a genus of plant that I’m sure he wouldn’t want his name attached to. Rafflesia are found throughout Southeast Asia, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and new species are increasingly being found in the Philippines. The Rafflesia are not conventionally attractive flowers. They are dark and heavy – if Carvaggio had painted flowers, he would’ve painted Rafflesia. These are not your grandmother’s watercolour petunias.

But they’re not without a certain allure. Partially it’s the size, the Rafflesia arnoldii (named after not one, but two white Englishmen) has the largest single flower of any plant in the world – up to 3 feet across, and weighing 24 pounds. If it were so inclined, the flower could eat a family of chihuahuas, with room to spare.

The Rafflesia, though, is not a flower you’re likely to keep in your sunroom, even if you think it would go with your decor (and in which case, please send me a picture of your sunroom, because that’s a place worth seeing). First, the Rafflesia are parasitic.  They grow on vines of the genus Tetrastigma, and use an absorptive organ called the haustorium to penetrate the outer walls of the vine and hijack the flow of nutrients. It’s like stealing cable from your neighbour. The vine survives, but it has to work harder to feed itself because the flower is siphoning off some of the nutrients. Rafflesia has no true roots, or stems, or leaves, and cannot photosynthesize; it is completely dependent on the vines. So that’s the first reason they wouldn’t do well in your sunroom.

The second reason becomes immediately obvious before you even lay eyes on the flower – it smells like rotting flesh. This delightful aroma has given it the colloquial name of “corpse flower” (although this name is contested by another large flower, the Amorphophallus titanum, which also smells like a dead animal), or “meat flower”. The pungent, sickly-sweet smell of rot is produced because, counterintuitively for our dainty human noses, it is attractive.

Each Rafflesia plant has only one flower, which means that each plant contains only boy parts or girl parts – to reproduce, the pollen from the male plants needs to find a way to reach the female plants. Not a problem if you can walk or fly, but you’re a plant, so that’s not really an option. Birds and bees and the other beautiful pollinators of the forest tend to stay away from you (because you smell), but that’s okay. Not all pollinators are so discerning. The smell of decay is the preferred perfume of flies and beetles, and they’ll swarm to you in the hundreds, carrying your pollen to other plants. In the natural world every kink is satisfied – thus preempting the internet in that capacity.

The Rafflesia is a clever piece of naming, and I have to wonder if the scientists who first described it were practicing a little bit of their own private activism. A flower that acts as a parasite on native vines, and reeks of death and decay? If that’s not a metaphor for colonialism, I don’t know what is.

Neil Griffin

This is a repost of an article originally hosted on my other blog,


Beaman et al. 1988. Pollination of Rafflesia (Rafflesiaceae). Amer. J. Bot. 75: 1148-1162.

Davis et al. 2007. Floral gigantism in Rafflesiaceae. Science