Decoding Latin Binomials
What's in a Name?
By Tristan Woodsmith
Have you ever wondered why scientists use complicated, italicized, tongue-twisting terminology to describe living organisms? Why in the world would someone choose to say Canus lupus familiaris, when “Dog” is so much simpler? The truth is there are many advantages to the use of scientific names when referring to living things, beyond sounding sophisticated or impressing those surrounding you. You have likely seen these “scientific names” listed as ingredients in food, nutritional supplements, cosmetics, or in articles about nature. They often appear in parenthesis, following the more familiar “common name.” For example: Turmeric (Curcuma longa) or Black Pepper (Piper nigrum). Although it is unlikely that you’d hear “Please pass the Piper nigrum” at the dinner table, there are many situations where scientific names are entirely appropriate, and even preferable.
Names, in any form, are distinctive designations of persons and things. Names differentiate and clarify our identities as people, and instill in us a sense of uniqueness and individuality. They also allow us to differentiate things around us (including other organisms) and clearly communicate observations about these things with other people. In biology, we have developed a formal system of naming living organisms, known as binomial nomenclature. Each species is given a unique scientific name with two terms (bi-nomial), both of which use Latin grammatical forms composed of Latin, Greek and other roots. To use a familiar example, “human” is the common name referring to the species “Homo sapiens.” The two parts of a binomial represent the generic name (which identifies the genus to which the species belongs) followed by the specific epithet (which identifies the species within the genus). For example, the Shiitake mushroom belongs to the genus Lentinula and the species Lentinula edodes.
This system was originally developed by Carl Linneus and published in Systema Naturae (The System of Nature), his hierarchical system of classification for nature. In this work, he attempted to describe all living things within the ranks of kingdom, class, order, genus and species. Although the last edition was published in the 1760s, much of Linnean taxonomy is still in use today, with additional ranks added along the way.
Originally, there were only 3 kingdoms: Stones, Plants, and Animals. Fungi, Algae and Lichens were all considered part of the kingdom Plantae, which remained the case until the mid-20th century. In 1969, Robert Whittaker proposed a five-kingdom classification system which recognized an additional kingdom for the Fungi (Whittaker, 1969). This formal distinction, which had previously been proposed by many, was long overdue. Some may recall the following mnemonic phrase from High-School Biology class: King Phillip Can Order Frog Gut Soup, representing the hierarchical taxonomic ranks of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Think of binomial nomenclature as the Gut Soup of it all.
One important advantage is universality – as binomial nomenclature is accepted by speakers of all languages; it largely eliminates ambiguity, so any one species cannot be confused with another. Another advantage is descriptiveness – as the names are typically representative of the organism’s morphology or pay homage to the person or influential teacher who named the species.
In contrast, common names are not unique, and often can be confusing and redundant. With common names, there is always room for interpretation. For example: Someone hunting Hen of the Woods may accidentally call it Chicken of the Woods, confusing a fellow mushroom hunter. Had they used Grifola frondosa (Maitake, a.k.a. Hen of the Woods), there is little to no chance someone would assume they are referring to Laetiporus sulphureus (Sulfur Shelf, a.k.a. Chicken of the Woods).
Another delicious example is Lion’s Mane. There are at least four different species that grow in North America and are collected for food. All are commonly referred to as “Lion’s Mane.” So how do you know which one is being referenced? Maybe you don’t care, for regardless of the true identity, this mushroom is destined to sizzle in a well-oiled skillet and be long gone before the day is done. However, if your interests lie outside the pot, you would have to use the proper scientific name to correctly describe the species of interest: Hericium erinaceus, H. americanum, H. coralloides, or H. abieties.
At first glance, binomial nomenclature may appear intimidating due to the use of Latin and Greek roots. Names like Lactarius, Gomphidius, Hypsizygus, Pleurotus, or Xeromphalina can tie one’s tongue and send the head spinning. Who needs Peter and his Peppers or Sally and the Seashore when you have Craterellus cornucopiodes and Tricholoma magnivelare? Although seemingly complicated at first, you may already be familiar with some commonplace scientific names. For instance: Alligator, Asparagus, Citrus, Hippopotamus, Rhododendron, and Chrysanthemum are all generic names. It’s a matter of familiarity. Pronouncing Latin and Greek may also seem like a daunting task, but don’t fret – there is no “correct” way. Latin pronunciation has continually evolved throughout the centuries, so however you say it is likely nowhere close to the way Latin was, or should be pronounced. Is Amanita “ah-mah-nee-tah” or “am-uh-nahy-tuh”? Forget about long versus short vowels, or stressing antepenultimate syllables. As Paul Stamets puts it: “Say it with authority!”
When it comes to learning scientific names, as opposed to simply memorizing all this tongue twisting terminology, discovering the meaning of a name can be extremely helpful in remembering it. A Latin or Greek dictionary can be particularly useful in this endeavor, or a comprehensive book about mushrooms like Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora.
Let’s explore the etymology of some of our favorite Host Defense Mushrooms:
Lion’s Mane – Hericium erinaceus: “The Hedgehog-Hedgehog Mushroom”
The generic name Hericium literally means “pertaining to hedgehog”, and erinaceus mirrors that meaning (Erinaceus is also a genus of hedgehog.) As these mushrooms have spines or teeth (as opposed to gills), they appear rather hedgehog like.
Reishi – Ganoderma lucidum: “The Bright-skinned Shiny Mushroom”
Ganos means brightness or sheen, and derma means skin or hide. Both are derived from Ancient Greek and in combination mean shiny skin. Lucid translates to glossy or polished – again, referring to the smooth, varnished (shiny) surface of the cap. Thus, Ganoderma lucidum fairly accurately describes the appearance of the mushroom.
Cordyceps – Cordycpes militaris: “The Club-headed Soldier Mushroom”
Cordy means swollen or club, and cep is head. Militar- means soldier-like, as in military. Yet again, this name makes perfect sense when you consider the morphology of this fungus.
Turkey Tail – Trametes versicolor: “The Multicolored One Who is Thin”
This name is derived from the prefix tram-, meaning thin and -etes – “one who is” with the specific epithet “versicolor”, referring to its multicolored appearance.
Maitake – Grifola frondosa: “The Braided Fungus with an Abundance of Fronds”
Grifola means braided fungus, whereas frond indicates a leaflike form, with the suffix -osa meaning abundance. When you look at a Maitake, it is literally a mass of numerous, overlapping leaflike caps (called fronds) branching out from a common base.
Shiitake – Lentinula edodes “The Flexible Food Mushroom”
The genus name is derived from latin roots Lent- meaning pliable and -inus: resembling, whereas edodes is Latin for food. As Shiitake this is one of the most common and oldest gourmet mushrooms cultivated for food, the meaning of its name is perfectly sensical.
Thanks to genetic analysis, we are entering a new era of enlightenment when it comes to fungal systematics (the field of mycology dedicated to taxonomy, classification and nomenclature). As molecular identification elucidates the relationships between these diverse and fascinating organisms, it places their nomenclature in continual flux. As fungi were originally classified based on morphological characteristics, introducing an entirely new set of information has resulted in much confusion. This nomenclatural nightmare is particularly frustrating when the latest book lists a new name for a once familiar mushroom – for example, until recently all North American Matsutake mushrooms were referred to as Tricholoma magnivelare. Now part of a “species complex”, our Western Matsutake (specimens found West of the Rocky Mountains) was given the name Tricholoma murrillianum.
If you find yourself uncertain of the currently accepted name, a resource such as Index Fungorum (www.indexfungorum.org) can be extremely helpful. Index Fungorum is an international database indexing all formal names of the fungal kingdom. It lists all ranks for a given species (including lichens, yeasts, fossil forms, and more), synonyms, and the author of each fungal name.
As you continue to explore mycology, with experience comes comfort and familiarity. What at first seems overwhelming and confusing, in time becomes perfectly clear. With patience and practice, anyone can learn not only edibility, but etymology as well. What’s in a name? That which we call a Reishi, by any other name would smell as sweet.
Whittaker, Robert H. (1969) "New concepts of kingdoms or organisms. Evolutionary relations are better represented by new classifications than by the traditional two kingdom's in Avantika ". Science, 163: 150-194