It is Springtime, and there is a lot of henbit growing outside - you know, that tiny little green plant with the square stems and tiny purple flowers? As it turns out, there actually IS some henbit growing outside .. but that name can also be applied to a few other plants as well .. and at least one of them is ALSO growing outside right now - and is featured in the picture above.
"Henbit" is a common name used to refer to a few species of Lamium, most with some very similar characteristics .. but these species have their own Latin binomial designations: Lamium Purpureum, and Lamium Amplexicaule are the two that are growing in my yard right now. The one in the picture is Lamium Purpureum, or purple dead nettle - not actually henbit at all, although a good five times out of ten, this is what a person is talking about when they say 'henbit'.
Now in the case of these two plants, a misidentification is not incredibly critical - both plants are edible and non toxic, and fill a similar niche in the ecosystem. No one would be in any danger from mistaking one plant for another. Now, what would you say if I were to offer you some Hemlock Tea?
Would you be surprised to hear that Hemlock is not only non toxic, but an excellent source of vitamin C during the winter months, and that brewing a tea from the foliage and eating the inner bark could save your life in an emergency situation? Of course, the Hemlock that I am referring to here is Tsuga Canadensis - the Canadian Hemlock, or Eastern Hemlock, which is a member of the Pinaceae family (a type of pine, in other words) The Hemlock that Socrates drank was Conium Macalatum .. a member of the family Apiaceae .. and is related to (and resembles) carrots.
This is why it is a good idea to become familiar with the binomial of any plants that you have an interest in - to avoid the naming confusion than can come from using common names alone - it is a habit that I am still attempting to form myself - and I admit, I sometimes feel silly attempting to pronounce the Latin names for various plants. One also runs the risk of being mistaken for some sort of elitist snob or 'know it all' .. "Too good to just refer to a plant by its common name like everyone else .. show off" I suppose, if being taken for a show off is the price to pay for potentially preventing a tragic mistake, it is worth it.
Learning Latin names for things can be annoying - no one really speaks Latin anymore, and even the scientific community and the clergy who still use Latin have a difference in opinion on pronunciation rules. Understanding the meaning of some of those word can be useful - so here we go: (lifted from the Iowa State University Website)
haema Blood red
luridus Pale yellow
Origins or Habitat
amur Amur River - Asia
chinensis China (also Sinensis)
maritima Sea side
occidentalis West - North America
orientalis East - Asia
Form or Habit
Common Root Words
This list is not complete, of course .. there are plants out there like the Chinese Yam, or Cinnamon Vine ( Dioscorea Polystachya) that could use a little help here: Dioscorea are the Yams, Poly we now know means 'Many', and Stachya is Latin for ear - so the Chinese Yam is the Many-eared Yam .. although I think I would prefer 'Dioscorea Sinensis' for simplicity!