Saturday, July 13, 2013

toxic name

Over the years, ornithologists have cleaned up, organized and standardized common bird names.

It’s a shame. Gone are such colorful folk names as rain crow, timberdoodle and water witch. (Yellow-billed cuckoo, American woodcock and pied-billed grebe, respectively.) Timberdoodle is such a great name, how could we get rid of it?

Luckily, botanists have sought no such sterilization in common wildflower names and many of the folk monikers persist, much to the delight of natural historians such as moi.

On a hike in the high mountains of central Virginia, I came across a wildflower I did not know. Its cluster of small flowers is borne in a tapering raceme that expands bottom to top as the blooms open. They look like baby bottle brushes. Follow-up research uncovered a most curious name: fly poison.

The plant’s botanical nomenclature is “Amianthium muscitoxicum.” That's a mouthful, but apparently, fly poison is the English translation of the Latin "muscitoxicum,” the name given to this species by Thomas Walter who published “Flora Caroliniana” in 1788.

His name is appropriate because all parts of the plant are considered highly poisonous (don’t worry, I did not try to eat it) with the bulb being especially toxic. It is recorded that early American colonists used the crushed bulb mixed with sugar to kill flies.

All that rich history in just a simple name.

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