Naming Names

Alongside the sandy track that extends Verner Farm Road into the hinterland and becomes a line scratched in the land where other roughly cut trails, oil roads and deer paths criss-cross the chaparral, in an area dotted with oil wells and forlorn houses and where there is a half-acre fenced yard that contains several rv's, and many broken down cars and trucks (in the middle of it all, an oil well), is, right at the moment, a yerba santa bush, its blossoms, under this week's deep, grey marine layer, a startling blue.

There's a lot of blue in the chaparral at the moment. Still dominant are the white mounding ceonothus bushes that cover the hillsides, but every day as the warm winds disperse the petals the snowy white drifts appear to be melting away. Here and there are the California lilacs, blue ceonothus. There's the occasional blue dick, lots of Solanum, blue eyed grass, rarely, Verbena lasiostachys and the blue blossoms of black sage (don't ask).

Few people care about chaparral, even those who espouse a concern for California's wild places. It is an un-loved plant community. Few know its signature plants - I was shocked recently when a board member of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy did not recognize ceonothus or for that matter the only slightly less common fuchsia-flowered gooseberry (Ribes speciosum). But take the trouble to get to know the dozen or so signature plants of the chaparral and the rewards are immense.

One could argue, perhaps, that the names of these plants are irrelevant. That you can enjoy the landscape without knowing what's what. Faithful readers will know that I believe in the power of naming names. That said, I also know that common names can be as effective in staking a connection with a plant as the official genus and species. As a child, I knew many common English plant names long before I was aware of the Linnaean classification system and, in my part of Surrey, a bank, hedgerow, meadow or roadside offered a constellation of recognized plants without a classically derived appellation amongst them. I would acknowledge, for instance, the presence of blackberry, ragged robin, cow parsley, deadly nightshade, yarrow, dead nettles, stinging nettles, docks, burdocks, horseradish, daisies, campion, violets, sorrel, dandelions, groundsel, horsetail and so on amidst the hazel, oak, holly, chestnut, ash, beech, birch and alder trees. Amongst this unremarked upon congregation of plants of the Surrey countryside the special displays of bluebells, primroses, foxgloves, cowslips, poppies, dog roses, snowdrops, jack-in-the-pulpits, red-hot-pokers and forget-me-nots were seasonally noted.

In an age when entertainment is less often derived from the natural environment, and the acquisition of culture almost entirely divorced from natural history, knowing the names of plants is a peccadillo not a pre-requisite of a shared civic curriculum. Gone are the days when Willis Linn Jepson (the great Californian botanist) could reasonably proclaim that "every educated person should know, at least broadly, the native forests, shrubs and flowering plants in his own state". But is it unreasonable that Californians should at least recognize their state flower, the poppy, rather than mistake it, as did a recent visitor to our property, for a buttercup?

California is rich in linguistic history. Thus native plants here have their official Linnaean names, their Spanish name and their multiple Native American names (many of which Harrington has preserved for us) (Yuccapedia). Sometimes, like their British counterparts, they have common names which may provide insight into their characteristics; and only our unfamiliarity with the classical languages in which their names are expressed, obscures the often prosaic meaning of the Linnean nomenclature.

The Spanish knew Eriodictyon crassifolium as yerba santa because the Franciscans recognized its medicinal value. But it has also become known, over the years, by a variety of common names including mountain balm, bishop wort, purple betony, holy herb, bear plant, saint's herb and most intriguingly, Indian chewing gum. A company called Blue Coyote Organics sells the dried herb at ten bucks an ounce and recommends smoking it or making a tea infusion "to calm the soul". The chewed leaves are resinous and bitter. Local Chumash knew it as wishap'.

Chamise, that stalwart of chaparral, with the frothy white flowers but tough as nails sclerophytic leaves and flesh ripping twigs and branches is also known as grease wood - because it is rich in oils, and of all the many chaparral plants that burn well, it reputably burns best. Chamise is derived from Spanish chamisa, from Galician chamiça, dry brush, firewood, from chama, flame, from the Latin flamma. Its Linnaean name is Adenostoma: from the Greek aden, "a gland," and stoma, "a mouth," in reference to the five glands at the mouth of the sepals - a reflection of the botanist's cone of vision which usually focusses on a plant's sex organs. The Chumash, at least the Barbareño, Purisimeño and Ineseño, according to Harrington, simply called it na'.

With a similar economy of syllables, related, perhaps, to the plant's ubiquity, Deerweed was ya'i to the Barbareño, but more elaborately Escoba de Horno (Hearth Broom) to the Spanish and is included in the Lotus (fruit of forgetfulness) genus. Now comes word that this genus is undergoing extensive taxonomic changes, for the Linnaean classification system is subject to constant revision. All thirty species native to California have been recently moved to the genera Acmispon or Hosakia in the second edition of The Jepson Manual. Willis Linn Jepson is California's Carolus Linnaeus, the man who set out to establish a definitive taxonomy of the State's flora.

It was Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) born in Sweden and a taxonomist, botanist and zoologist, who famously lumped apes in the same category as humans and thus paved the way for an acceptance of Darwin's evolutionary theory. His Systema Naturae (1735), a great inventory of life on earth, was the first work to gather terrestrial phenomena into the now familiar groupings of animal, vegetable and mineral. He published Species Plantarum in 1753 and thus initiated a formal botanical taxonomy. Jepson (1867-1946), like all natural scientists who followed Linnaeus, built on his binomial system and in 1923, U.C. Berkeley published his A Manual of the Flowering Plants of California a 1200-page single volume tome. Commonly known as Jepson's Manual, it has become California's botanical bible. Now Bruce Baldwin, curator of Berkeley’s Jepson Herbarium, has edited The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California, listing over 7,500 California plant species, subspecies and varieties, in a 1600 page volume published by U.C. Press, 2012.

While this systematized simulacrum is an enormously valuable scientific text, and of deep interest to the chaparral warrior (for to enter into the thorny world of the elfin forest is to battle the barbed enmeshments that it throws up in defense of its pristine world), it is but an intellectual exegesis of the  wildlands. Yet, as the definitive namer of names it holds the key to our connection to California's landscapes: where the power of naming leads to a recovery of the sacred bond that exist between humans and plants - the magical connection we experience as children when we first lay claim to a flower, not by cutting and capturing it, but by whispering its name.

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