What's in a name? When it comes to plants and animals, quite a bit

Naming is a human obsession. When we see a thing, we have to know its name. If it doesn't have a name, we have to give it one.

We've been naming things for eons, so you'd think we'd be pretty good at it by now. Sure, we can assign names to things, but learning new names and remembering them is another matter.

I've got field guides dog-eared by years of use, learning and relearning names of plants and animals. Names are tough.

Like old-fashioned pantaloons, the flowers of Dutchman's Breeches appear to be hung on a line to dry. The common name is a great description of this spring wildflower. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

The compulsion to slap a name on things used to trouble me. I learned early on as a naturalist that as soon as I'd answer the question "What's that called?" the inquirer's curiosity stopped.

On any given nature walk, no sooner had I said the name of the plant or animal, and the group would move on.

In a matter of minutes, a hand would pop up with the question again, "What's the name of this one?"

A nature walk can easily become a laundry list of names that no one remembers back at the parking lot.

About 20 years ago, I decided not to answer the question. Instead, I asked the person to describe the "thing" to me. I got a blank stare.

A personal favorite is Virginia valeriae, named for 19th-century collector Valery Blaney. The common name, Smooth Earth Snake, doesn't have quite the pizzazz. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

What does it look like? What does it feel like? What does it smell like? People in the group were chomping at the bit for me to spit out the plant's name, but soon they were all examining the plant.

I threw in a little story about the plant's uses or the role it played in history. Then I asked everyone to come up with a name. Fred, Crusty Bark, anything. Only after they had christened it in their own words did I reveal the botanical name.

And guess what? By the end of the walk, people remembered the plants by the names they gave them. They knew who the plants were.

There must be something to this, I thought. Sure enough, I found out that I'm not the first to figure out this naming business.

In a book called "Braiding Sweetgrass," author Robin Wall Kimmerer explained that in traditional cultures, referring to another living creature (or even a nonliving thing) is a form of acknowledgment and respect.

The name of this woodpecker is one of the most confusing in the world of ornithology. Despite the red nape behind its head, the bird is called the Red-bellied Woodpecker. There is a faint red wash on its belly feathers, which is tough to see. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

Kimmerer, a biologist, lecturer, expert in moss identification, and citizen of the Pottawatomie Nation, is in a unique position to blend the insight of a scientist and an indigenous person.

We don't call our grandmother "It," she explained. That would be disrespectful of someone we know and love. We similarly show respect for our nonhuman kin by calling them by their name. Using a name forges a connection between you and the rest of creation.

Many of us stress over our difficulty remembering names.

In grad school, I thought I'd never get though ornithology due to the daunting task of memorizing the entire "Field Guide to Birds of North America."

Over the years of birding in the field, though, I realized that remembering names isn't the issue; it's knowing the being behind the name.

Author Helen Keller, who examined life more fully than many of us ever will, understood this well.

Blind and deaf from an early age, Keller learned by touching things and exploring the world with senses other than sight.

"The more I handled things and learned their names and uses," she wrote, "the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world."

Names are part of kinship.

You'll remember the name of this spring plant if you get a whiff of it. It's called Skunk Cabbage for its distinct fragrance. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

What about those pesky scientific names? There is a place for scientific names, to be sure, but taxonomists have a habit of changing scientific names on us.

Years ago, I made the acquaintance of a wildflower on a hill prairie. This beautiful plant with petals the color of the summer sky was called Sky-blue Aster. I learned its other name, too, Aster azureous, which means sky-colored star.

Then some wise guy changed the plant's name to Symphyotrichum oolentangiense. ("Seriously?" I muttered when I first saw this in print.) The plant hasn't changed, nor has my relationship to it. I will forever call it Aster azureous, the Sky-blue Aster.

Emily Dickinson would approve. The 19th-century poet wrote,

"'Arcturus' is his other name -

I'd rather call him 'Star.'

It's very mean of Science

To go and interfere!"

Bingo. The scientific name isn't the crux of the matter. There's a different kind of name recognition, and that's between you and the star or the wildflower or the mountain.

A present-day challenge in learning plant and animal names is that we, as a society, are increasingly disconnected from our real-life, fellow beings.

One of the best vocalists in spring and summer is the cleverly named Song Sparrow. This small grassland bird can carry a tune across the wind-swept prairie. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

The good news is that most people still have a smidgen of interest. They're the ones who pepper nature walks with "What's this called?" And that's OK.

If you want to learn the names of some of these different species, you can do it.

I'll bet that if you're a "Game of Thrones" fan you can easily identify dozens of characters in Westeros. Kids have no problem with names like Pikachu and Wartortle in the Pokemon world. Surely Big Bluestem and Magnolia Warbler aren't out of our reach.

To learn plant and animal names, hang out with them a bit. Notice the nuances of their habits. Check out their real estate. Listen to them. Go back and visit again next month, and the month after that. Before you know it, you'll be on a first-name basis.

What's in a name? A lot. Or, as Helen Keller said, kinship with the rest of the world.

• Valerie Blaine is Kane County naturalist and a lifelong name-learner. You may contact her at

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