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Thinking like Thoreau about names of plants

October 7, 2012 - Don Williams

I enjoy “Walden.” Henry David Thoreau, who went to the woods so that when he died he would not “discover that he had not lived,” had a way with words.

He used words such as “ennu” (boredom), “succedaneous” (substituted) and “sufferance” (to tolerate pain), and names from past histories including “Champollion” (the father of Egyptology), “Ingenuus” (a Roman leader), “Hygeia,” “Aesculapius,” “Hebe,” “Sheik Sadi,” “Bramins” and “Deucalion,” among others. It appears that he had a liking for little-known words that had double letters in them.

I do not pretend that I know all of his words or understand all of “Walden,” but it brings joy in the reading — every paragraph is a thought-provoking challenge. Thoreau wisely believed that the written word was “more universal than any other work of art,” and “books are the treasured wealth of the world.”

One of the practices followed by Thoreau in his writings was giving the Latin name for the flora he wrote about. I imagine, with his unique mind, that he had them all memorized. My sons were memorizing Latin names when in forestry training. I use a book; many of them are impossible to pronounce.

It is another challenge to identify the Adirondack plants that I encounter, and it is an additional challenge to give them their Latin names. Challenges keep the aging mind alive, so it raised the question, what are the Latin names of the plants that I have transplanted or have growing on my three acres as part of my beautiful, all-natural, landscaping? A few years ago, a college professor, whose father built the Peck’s Lake dam, walked my land and called each tree by its Latin name but did not name the plants. I looked them up in E. Laurence Palmer’s famous “Field Book.”

Those who remember know of the “Pokeweed” that suddenly appeared on the “back forty” a couple years ago. I wrote about it in October 2010. Apparently, the birds had brought the seeds. I found that it was used to treat skin diseases and arthritis and also made into a dye. The Latin name is “Phytolacca americana.”

My Solomon’s Seal bed hangs on and springs up each spring, bending over with its hanging bell flowers. It was used by Native Americans like a potato, and early colonists ate it for survival. Its Latin name is “Polygonatum biflorum.”

Golden Rod, often called a “bad plant” by those with allergies, has found its way to the land. Known as “Solidago canadeuis,” it is believed by some to have wound-healing juices and is a possible source for making rubber.

The little violets poke their heads up, here and there, each spring, and remind me of the days when I made violet jam and violet syrup. The jam is full of vitamins C and A, and the syrup is good for colds or on pancakes. The Latin name is easy to remember:?“Viola cucullata.” The butterflies love milkweed, and so do we. The buds, stems, and pods, eaten by the Native Americans, are still a good addition to a meal today. You can call them “Asclepias syriaca.”

Every lawn, sooner or later, attracts the dandelions, which can be eaten like spinach or made into wine. The “Taraxacum officinale” is a good source of calcium and potassium as well as vitamin A.

Orpine is somewhat a rare plant but grows well when transplanted in the shade. Sometimes called “live forever” or “frog’s tongue” as well as its Latin anme, “Sedum purpareum,” its leaves can be carefully pinched and blown up like little balloons.

Other plants on the property include “Arctium lappa,” “Cirsium arvense,” “Allium tricoccum,” “Armoracia rusticana” and “Plantago major.” You might want to exercise your mind and look them up. Most of them can be used for food or medicine. Thoreau wrote, “I have made a satisfactory dinner simply off a dish of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) which I gathered in my corn field, boiled and salted. I give the Latin on account of the savoriness of the trivial name.”

Maybe, just maybe, if we used the Latin names, we could learn to eat the weeds from our gardens!


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In this photo taken last summer, visitors gather near a bronze statue of Henry David Thoreau outside the replica of his cabin at Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord, Mass. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)