Winslow Long (1922-2013)
My father, who died at 12:20 a.m. on the morning of April 27, 2013, cared about animals, particularly dogs, and he cared about plants. He spent several decades as a dairyman on a commercial farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He loved poetry, especially Robert Frost and unbowdlerized Emily Dickinson, and committed many poems to memory. On his 90th birthday last year he declaimed Frost’s “Birches,” not a short poem, to the assembled celebrants.
After moving to Seattle five years ago with his German shepherd, Toby, my father became a familiar figure in the vicinity of Green Lake, which he walked around almost daily. He loved math and studied it right up until the week of his death. He read novels and he read science and became this column’s most devoted reader. His own writing consisted largely of lists of plants, but he did write the following piece, which I hereby present in his memory as this week’s essay.
To Identify a Tree
A friend—with a Ph.D. in economics or maybe sociology—once asked me to identify a tree. “Just tell me the common name—don’t bother with the scientific name.”
All right. Black Locust, Pea Flower Locust, Yellow Locust, White Locust, Green Locust, Whya Tree, False Acacia, Silver Chain, Common Locust, Shipmast Locust, Red Locust, Post Locust, Honey Locust, Bastard Acacia—take your pick.
If she accepted the botanical name there would be just one. Robinia pseudoacacia. Not only is there only one name for the species, but no other plant species can share that name.
There is some botanical grammar, however, which is not too difficult. The scientific name is a binomial—that is it is made up of two words. The first is the genus to which it belongs—always capitalized. The second is the specific epithet (not the species; the species is the two names together). It is always correct to use lower case letters for this—it may be capitalized if it is named for a person or another plant.
Since the binomial is in Latin (or Latinized), a foreign word, it must be in italics or bold print when printed. If it is handwritten it must be underlined. After the binomial, there is often a name or letter. This is the author—the person who discovered and named the plant. It is part of the name but not always used. If the author is well known, such as Linnaeus, only the initial L is used. If the botanist is not well known his whole name is used.
Many people don’t like botanical names because they are unfamiliar. However some have gotten into the common vocabulary and they do not bother us, such as Aster, Rosa, or chrysanthemum. —Winslow Long, December 28, 2010
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.