June 14, 2023

〠《northern crocus》

binomial #021_


Did you know that words are very powerful? 🙃 It's true. It can be easy for self-described writers to state that their art is the be-all end-all, the highest form of expression. I have fallen into this trap many times. Nowadays, I don't believe that words fundamentally determine material reality. Semantic satiation, euphemism treadmills, corporate rebranding, cycles of appropration, decontextualization, and cliches are all examples where words are very much not in control.

But! Words do a lot to mediate our social/material world and provide small twists and textures.

I gather words in my heart like a magpie or raccoon gathers shiny objects. The words I string together are delicate, and sometimes the connections between them are tenuous.

The group of words that has caught my attention today is Huernia insigniflora olga2. It's from an ebay listing for a succulent (because I love to browse plants on ebay). I assume "olga2" is the name of the specific variety/cultivar. What the plant looks like and what the name means aren't all that important here. The words simply reverberate in my mind as an incantation, sonorous syllables in my cavernous ears. Whisper the name aloud:

Huerna. Insigniflora. Olga. 2.

Because I am a wee nerd, I encounter and think about scientific names like "Huernia insigniflora" often. Heck, scientific names - binomial names - are the inspiration for the current incarnation of this email newsletter.

But! I have a complicated opinion of scientific names. They are useful - a scientific name helps me communicate with others about specific groups of living things. It makes identification straight forward and learning facts easier.

There is a funny thing when scientific names enter common tongue. When we are not in a rigid, controlled scientific mindset, the order that is supposed to be imposed by scientific names wanes. I see this with people who grow drug plants - like people who collect and grow Trichocereus (a mescaline-containing cactus). Trichocereus isn't really the official name. 40+ years ago it was incorporated into the genus Echinopsis, but even now you won't find anyone calling Trichocereus pachnoi "Echinopsis pachnoi."

Springing from this reluctance to change, there is a rich tapestry of vernacular cultivar names for "Trichs." Some are scientific-ish, like TPM (Trichocereus peruvianus monstrose), others are named by growers/breeders Trichocereus Matucana pach OP Landrace (OP means "Open Pollinated") or T. pach Addington x Fat Pach (a hybrid of two named varieties). They're oddly homespun, inexact, and fun, like the plants themselves.

Instead of making me worried about the sanctity of scientific names, this proliferation and richness brings me deep joy. The way colloquial names wend and weave is in stark contrast to the pernicious, concealed cultural associations that are so often buried in scientific names. Once a scientific name has been applied, it cannot be removed (without a scientific reason), even if it's colonialist (Whitesloanea crassa, Somalian succulent named after white men), disgusting, offensive, or flat-out wrong (as in the prehistoric genus of whales named Basilosaurus, which means "King Lizard"). In contrast to scientific names, vernacular names give you and me the power to name things - to take and appropriate scientific names, change them, erase them.

However liberating, it can be difficult. I have my own personal name for the genus of plants that I love dearly - scientific name Lagochilus. My name is "haremint." It's an accessible name that informs (it's in the mint family) and explains (the flowers look like a hare's lip). The number of people interested in the plant is small, so the potential for me to share this name with them is high, even if it can be hard to get it widely used and accepted.

Have you ever wanted to be more confused? You can attain a new level of semantic satiation with Trichocereus cacti names by reading the Misplant Seeds website: https://misplant.net/ 

I will leave you with a riddle, some two-word phrases I've gathered or made, some Moomin, and a Nancy:

"Three hares sharing three ears,
Yet every one of them has two."

- ye olde german 'riddle'

 medicine bawl
spirited awry
 space feel
  face peel
 dental forumla   extraordinal numbers
 drooping racemes
  night droppings
 Precambrian rabbit
  non-human sleep
 spicy dicey
assault reiki
  leveret spirit
out-of-touch sensation


- c a s

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