By any other name

goinggreenMany Peorians will remember the names, “Uncle Bob and Aunt Billy.” Bob and Sybil Prager were naturalists at Forest Park Nature Center over four decades ago. Bob was a pioneer in restoring some of the beautiful, though little known, flora native to Central Illinois, from the fragile snow trillium, to shooting star, to the eight foot tall big bluestem grass. The clearing where the Nature Center’s “Deer Run Trail” meets “Valley Trail,” is actually an amazingly diverse prairie planting, that was meticulously planted and weeded by Bob, Sybil, and a small cadre of volunteers.

Prior to Bob, I’d never heard anyone place colorful adjectives ahead of certain plants’ scientific names… as in “the despicable Molugo verticillata,” or “the detested Chenopodium album,” or “the hated Portulaca” (each an aggressive weed). He used to laugh and use these iffy terms of endearment. He gave credit for this to Ray Schulenberg, plant curator at Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. Ray had coached Bob on native plantings and had cautioned him about various weeds which could be initially aggressive competitors, with the fine upstanding aristocratic native flora he was trying to establish.  Bob would pull up a horseweed and say, “ah… the detested Erigeron canadensis.”

The efforts of Ray Schulenberg can now be seen in a hundred acre restored prairie/ and savannah, named in his honor, at Morton Arboretum. It is home to over 350 species of plants. His influence is also evident at Forest Park, in that planting along Valley Trail now known as “Pragers’ Prairie.”  Many of those amazing plants came from Schulenberg.

April is a month when some of the most beautiful flowers can be seen in Forest Park Nature Center. As a new Naturalist, I had once accompanied “Uncle Bob” on a hike and pointed out a “Mayflower.” Bob was quite exacting when it came to the correct names of flora and fauna. “That is hepatica.” Just for the record, Mayflower was an old common name used for this plant (I’d been taught the name by another old person, after all). At least I was partly vindicated.

But regardless what it’s called hepatica is one of my favorite spring wildflowers. These beautiful, photogenic native flowers have graced the woodlands in Forest Park, Detweiller Park, and Robinson Park for millennia. The delicate flowers arise from the previous year’s foliage.  Each flower has 5 to 9 petal-like sepals which range from blue to purple to white, and are raised just inches above the forest floor. They are well worth discovering along Nature Center trails this month.

Common names, while useful, often vary regionally, and can be misleading, referring to more than one kind of plant. The plant today properly called “Mayflower” is in the lily family, and blooms in May.

Scientific names may sound highfalutin, but they are more consistent than common names.  They include two crucial components called ‘genus and species,’ as in Homo sapiens. Theoretically the scientific names of things should apply world wide.  Often times they refer to defining characteristics. Mayflower, oddly enough, is Maianthemum, which translates literally as “Mayflower,” Maius (Latin for May) and anthemum (from the Greek word for flower). It is found in the northern part of Illinois. However, its relative, “false Solomon’s seal,” (Maianthemum racemosum) is found throughout the ‘Land of Lincoln,’ and is common. The flowers of false Solomon’s seal are on a raceme, (a terminal stem along which flowers are evenly arranged), hence the name, “racemosum.”  The scientific name of this plant was “Smilacina racemosa,” But DNA analysis is leading to realignment among several species, due to shared genetics.

But back to Hepatica… the common name of this wonderful flower is also the scientific name.  It refers to liver (as in hepatitis).  The foliage is reminiscent of the lobes of a liver. According to “the doctrine of signatures,” this was a magical indicator. Herbalists used this plant to treat ailments of that part of the body which most resembled the plant.  A theological justification for this was that ‘God would have wanted to show which plants would be useful for what ailments.’ There is no evidence that plant shapes and colors help in the discovery of any medical uses. One could only hope that following this misguided doctrine would cause no harm.

This diminutive plant apparently also had rather diminutive medicinal properties. It had some use treating lung ailments, hemorrhoids, and convulsions, but was described as having mainly a placebo effect.

Hepatica is in a family of plants referred to as the “crowfoot” family, known in Latin as “Ranunculaceae” named after buttercup, which is in the genus, “Ranunculus,” Latin for “little frog.” This strange name dates back to the first century A.D.  Ranunculus was named by the Roman senator, Pliny, the elder.  It is apparently a reference to the flower’s tendency to grow in moist areas, and hence associated with frogs. At Forest Park, the beautiful yellow buttercups can also be found along Valley Trail in April and May.

The family, Ranunculaceae contains many beautiful and interesting plants, including some of the more common and better known of our native wildflowers, such as the red columbine. When I was a teen, this was the first plant for which I learned the scientific name, Aquilegia canadensis. Aquilegia from the Medieval Latin, “aquilegus,” which refers to ‘water collecting,’ and canadensis, named for the place in which some of the first specimens were collected. The common name, columbine, is from the Latin word for dove, since the inverted flower was thought to resemble 5 doves together.

The Pragers’ dedication to the native flora of Forest Park was a great start. Thanks to the restoration ecology efforts of today’s Park District staff and volunteers, you can continue to see some of the very special plants that comprise the heart and soul of this special place called Central Illinois, evident throughout Peoria’s parks as the season unfolds. For more information call Forest Park Nature Center (309) 686-3360


Dale Goodner

Leave a Reply