Family Names





Wouldn’t it be strange to meet someone for the first time and not exchange names?  It is not only the polite thing to do but it is also a necessary thing to do. There is no other piece of information that is so crucial for the beginning of a relationship. Nothing compares. So, assuming you are following social conventions, you learn the first name of your new acquaintance and maybe half the time you learn the last name. In our Western society, one’s last name designates paternal heritage. This is arguably the most telling and important label that you carry. Middle names and first names can hold family significance as well, but not to the degree that last names do. Your last name binds you to a family and thus to a history.

The point that I am trying to make is this: if we wish to know about the plants we are growing and the animals we are raising, we ought to first know their names. Just as a human’s relatives tell much about that person, inform who that person is and will become; so plant’s relatives dictate certain characteristics of that plant. As someone who is interested in growing food and in learning about agricultural plants, I have been remiss in not learning these names.

Until I become familiar (neat word choice, huh?) with those names I will be stuck with just a general understanding of what I am trying to grow. It’s almost as embarrassing as the exchange with a person whose name you forgot, “Heeeeeey, how’s it going…dude? Haven’t seen you in a while (dang, what’s his name?!) What have you been up to.” It is not good, but I think it happens all too often. As one of my friends says, if you don’t make an effort to learn a person’s name, you are sending a message that you just don’t care about them. Kind of harsh, but there is a kernel of truth there.

Back to the plants and the names of plants and the fact that I do care. I want to get better at this growing of food. And, in caring for the plants that I do, I want to show them that I really frickin’ care! Thus, my motivation to learn the latin names and genealogy of plants. One of the first families that I’ve looked up is the ubiquitously loved (and perhaps as consistently shunned in certain diets as inflammatory) Solanaceae or “Nightshade” family. Most people who cook a bit or garden a bit could name the big players in this family: the potato, the tomato, the bell pepper, the eggplant. All good. All tasty. I wish to learn their real names, though. We can be on a first name basis, but I’d still like to know their heritage. I would like to be able to call them Solanum tuberosum (potato) and Solanum lycopersicum (tomato) and Capsicum annuum (bell pepper) and Solanum melongena (eggplant).

With the extension of Genus and species, you can easily see that some of these plants are more closely related.  Just in my recent research, I learned that the tamarillo, a fruit commonly grown in New Zealand is of the genus and species, Solanum betaceum. This may help explain its colloquial nickname as the “tree tomato” . Also, it is interesting to learn which plants fall within the scope of a single family. For example, it was fun for me to learn that tomatoes (Solanaceae Solanum lycopersicum) and tobacco (Solanaceae Nicotiana tabacum) are from the same family. This is a fact that Homer Simpson exploited when he got rich off of his Tomacco crop on one of my favorite Simpson’s episodes. Just in case you’re curious; yes, somebody has tried this combination in real life. A dude in Oregon successfully grafted a tomato plant onto the roots of a tobacco plant (arguably possible because they are from the same family). I’m not sure if he ended up smoking the leaves or eating the fruit. If he had good judgment, probably neither.

So, already, with this knowledge that is trickling in about families and plant relations, I feel a greater depth of understanding. I feel that my family is growing. And that, my friends, is a special feeling. If you have a curiosity about what I am talking about, I urge you to explore this for yourself. There is no need to be intimidated by the science, it is just another way of looking at the plants we love. I hope you will also not be turned off by the formal-sounding latin names. I promise you, that this is not a dead language and I have found it to be a very logical language. This is not a pig’s latin, this is a farmer’s latin.

Happy Studying!

-Farmer Leda

(pictures from top to bottom: tobacco, tamarillo, tomato)

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