Medicinal Plant Names Services blog
Welcome to Kew’s Medicinal Plant Names Services blog. Here you will find news items, announcements, progress reports, and occasional longer postings on subjects of interest to our users and partners. For example, we will announce here when the beta version of the names portal becomes available online later this year, and advise of forthcoming meetings.
Visit the Medicinal Plant Names Services pages to find out more about our work.
Can you tell what the difference will be between Lamium album and Lamium purpureum from the names alone? Would you rather crush and smell the leaves of Paederia foetida or Galium odoratum?
At MPNS we are keen to emphasise the importance of using the correct Latin scientific names for plants, but these names can seem confusing and alien to the uninitiated. However, not only do scientific names indicate the botanical classification of a plant, the meanings of the Latin (or Latinised) terms used in the names contain all sorts of information about a plant which can hopefully make them easier to identify and remember.
The reluctance to use the scientific names for plants is understandable - to be blunt, Latin is an arcane and arguably a ‘dead’ language, so it isn’t surprising that many people prefer to stick with the common names and find scientific names hard, or even boring, to learn.
This is not helped by the fact that botanical Latin has a whole series of grammatical rules which can seem quite daunting to learn if you have no experience of classical Latin (and even if you do it has its own peculiarities). I have lost count of the number of times I have picked up William Stearn’s great tome 'Botanical Latin' with the intention of learning just one principle of grammar, only to find my eyes quickly glazing over.
Instead I find myself skipping straight to the glossary at the back of the book which provides a long list of strange-sounding words that would not seem out of place in a spell from Harry Potter: transmutatis meaning ‘changed’; ambustus – ‘burned’; Draceana – ‘female dragon’, and many, many more. Looking through this glossary, and others, lets me discover the meanings of many Latin terms which often explain what the plant will look and smell like and even how it got its name.
Spotting the stems
The one lesson in grammar I have learned through trial and error is that, although the endings of a word may change, the stem is normally still easy to recognise and can tell you a lot about the plant. For example, in Lamium album L.*, 'album' is given to describe the white flowers of the plant, the common name of which is white dead nettle. The word white can also appear as ‘alba’ in Salix alba L. (white willow), or ‘albus’ in Melilotus albus Medik. (white melilot).
So knowing that the stem ‘alb-’ usually indicates a white flower can help to differentiate one species from another in the same genus. For example, Lamium album L. from Lamium purpureum L. which has reddish-purple flowers (and is known as purple dead nettle). Some other medicinal plants with similar coloured flowers and names containing the stem 'purpur-' are: Digitalis purpurea L. (common or purple foxglove), Gentiana purpurea L. (purple gentian) and Cytisus purpureus Scop. (purple broom).
Lamium album L. (left) and Lamium purpureum L.* (right) (Photo: J. Irving)
Sweet or sour
So what about the choice between Paederia foetida L. or Galium odoratum (L.) Scop.?* The clue is in the second of the two Latin words, known as the specific epithet. Foetida means ‘foul smelling’ and odoratum means ‘sweet-scented’. Once you know these terms you can read and understand them whenever they appear in a plant name. In the case of these particular species:
Paederia foetida also goes by the great name of stink vine, due to the sulphurous smell it produces when its leaves are crushed. This feature is common to the whole genus which is named Paederia from the Latin paedor, which means 'dirt or filth'. Although this does not sound very appealing, Paederia foetida is actually widely used as a medicinal plant in India and Asia, most commonly for digestive complaints.
Galium odoratum is gentler on the nose, producing a smell reminiscent of freshly mown hay when crushed, an aroma that intensifies when the plant is dried. It has a long history of use in Germany, where the leaves are infused in wine to make the drink Maibowle, which is traditionally drunk on May Day. It also finds its way into jellies and syrups and I have heard it makes great ice cream. Medicinally it has been taken for digestive problems which, interestingly, is a widespread use for strong smelling herbs.
The sweet smelling Galium odoratum (L.) Scop.* (Photo: J. Irving)
Benefiting from Latin
Hopefully, these brief examples demonstrate that you don’t need to be a linguist to be able to benefit from a spot of botanical Latin.
Learning the meanings of some commonly used terms will not only give you an idea of the plant’s appearance and smell but can also be a great source of information about a plant’s habitat, how it has been used and the history of its discovery. Hopefully, this will make the name easier to remember!
I will explore some of these meanings further in my next post, as well as looking at how particular names are chosen for a plant.
In the meantime, has anyone come across a particularly interesting Latin plant name? Are some easier to remember than others? Leave your ideas by clicking on the 'Add comment' button below.
- Jason -
* The ‘L.’ and the ‘Scop.’ in these Latin names refer to the author. The author is an important part of a Latin scientific name and should be used to avoid ambiguity because in some instances the same binomial name (genus plus species) has been used differently by different botanists (authors) to describe different species. Find out more on the MPNS Glossary
- Read more about the Medicinal Plant Names Services
- The MPNS Glossary
- Why use Latin scientific names?
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The symposium will explore issues facing the herbal medicine industry following the recent changes to the way herbal medicine products are regulated within the European Union. As a result of an EU directive in 2004 the UK government established a Traditional Herbal Medicines Registration Scheme (THMRS) requiring herbal medicines sold over the counter to be licensed through the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
The title of the symposium ‘Can medicine be your food?’ focuses attention on the borderline in regulation between products classed as ‘supplements’ and those classed as ‘medicine’, as the same plant can fall into both categories depending on how it is prepared and presented. Many plants that are used medicinally are also sold as food supplements and in cosmetics which are not regulated through the THMRS. This affects how supply of these plants can be regulated to ensure products are high-quality and safe. Presentations will be given on specific aspects of this topic by experts in medicinal plant research and in the regulation of herbal medicinal products.
Some of the many products available containing medicinal plants (Photo: Jason Irving)
The day will conclude with a round table discussion on the topic ‘Food or medicine? – Health care products for minor self-limiting conditions’, chaired by Professor Michael Heinrich, with participants from the British and European medicine regulatory authorities, legal advisors, as well as practitioners and researchers of herbal medicine.
Speakers from Kew
- Dr Sarah Edwards has recently joined Kew's Medicinal Plant Names Services (MPNS) and will be giving a talk at the symposium. Sarah also teaches biological conservation at Oxford University and was recently a research fellow at the UCL School of Pharmacy. Her talk will highlight the intersections between consumer safety, plant conservation and sustainable livelihoods of communities that supply plant materials to the herbal medicine trade. Plants that are in high demand are often vulnerable to over-collection in the wild and this not only raises problems of conservation but it can also directly impact on safety. As the plant becomes harder to find unscrupulous suppliers may turn to adulterants to meet demand. These lookalikes may be less effective or inactive medicinally, but can also be dangerous to health if they contain toxic chemicals.
Two other Kew scientists who advise the MPNS project will also be talking at the symposium:
- Christine Leon has many years of experience of the herbal medicine trade through her work establishing the pioneering Chinese Medicine Plants Authentication Centre at Kew, a project that works in both the UK and China to establish reliable reference sources and processes for verifying both crude plant material and processed medicines.
- Professor Monique Simmonds is Head of Kew's Sustainable Uses of Plants Group. Monique co-ordinates research into the economic uses of plants and fungi, their potential as cosmetics, pharmaceutical and agrochemical leads, and as sources of sustainably harvested medicines.
- Jason -
Find out more
The symposium will take place in the Jodrell Laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on Monday 28th October 2013.
On the evening of the same day, at 6pm, there will be a talk by Lara Bean (Medical Herbalist) titled: 'Exploring Britain's Native Plant medicine - old wives tales or old wise tales?'. This is part of the Kew Mutual Improvement Society Lecture series.
More about the Medicinal Plant Names Services
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Discovering and identifying plants
I first became really interested in plants around four years ago when I started working as a forager, picking wild food to supply to restaurants. My work introduced me to the incredible diversity of plant life in Britain and I became fascinated with the possibilities wild plants presented for use as food, medicine and materials.
To explore these possibilities for myself I had to be sure the plant I was picking was not poisonous, and that it was the species that tasted nice rather than a flavourless, or foul tasting, relative. This required developing the skill of plant identification; counting the number of petals, describing the shape of a leaf, remembering a smell and spotting many other features. I then had to use this information to differentiate one plant from another. This learning process was given a particular urgency by the knowledge that if I picked the wrong one then I or, even worse, someone else, could be poisoned.
The confusion of common names
But identifying a plant as ‘edible’ or ‘tasty’ was not enough on its own. I also had to attach it to a name so that when I spoke with chefs and other foragers everyone would be sure we were talking about the same plant. At first I assumed one name would be enough. After all I had only ever known one name for the plants I was used to eating: carrot, tomato, spinach and so on. I found out it was not so simple when I phoned another forager in Scotland and asked him “is the lady’s smock blossoming?”. He had no idea what I meant. After explaining that I was talking about a plant, that had four pale pink petals and grew by streams, with a distinct flavour of horseradish, he said “oh, you mean cuckoo flower?” which was the name he had always known it by.
Cardamine pratensis L. is known by the common names lady's smock and cuckoo flower (Photo: Jason Irving)
I began to look into the names of the plants I was picking, checking books on foraging, wild flowers and herbal medicine, and soon found that one plant could have as many as 30 names! These recorded ‘common names’ were often local to an area, and in the past it was normal for there to be a different name for a plant in each county. This could obviously cause confusion, as not only could people not know the name for a plant in another area, they may actually use the same name for a different plant. One example is ‘old man’s beard’ a name used for at least five different species of plants and lichens with features that resemble white wispy hairs.
Fortunately, English common names have become more standardised over the years, so at most I would normally only have to learn two or three names for a specific plant. However, these were just the English names which did not help me much when I met a fellow forager from France. I was very keen to find out what he was picking and although he spoke English and I spoke some French we both only knew the names of a handful of plants in each other’s language, and common names usually do not translate well. We tried explaining the appearance and taste of plants we did not know the names for, but found this was a long and laborious way of communicating!
Clematis vitalba L. is one of many plants that are known by the common name 'old man's beard' (Photo: Emőke Dénes / CC BY-SA- 2.5)
Scientific plant names - an easy solution?
Botanists had come up with a solution to these problems some time ago by giving plants names in botanical Latin. These Latin scientific names are recognised internationally as referring to a particular species. I started to memorise some of these scientific names, but I did not have the opportunity to use them much in my work.
After two years foraging I decided to enrol on a herbal medicine degree to learn more about the effects the plants I was picking have on the human body. For my first exam I studiously learnt around 100 scientific names of medicinal plants. Equipped with my new found mental bank of names I thought I had reached a point where I could talk about plants more precisely, and find out information about a particular species from around the world. But I soon found out it is not always that simple.
At the university where I study there is a herbal medicine clinic where students can observe consultations with patients and assist in the preparation of their medicines in the pharmacy. The most common form of medicine is a tincture, an alcoholic extract of a plant, and bottles of these extracts are organised alphabetically by scientific name in the pharmacy.
One day when I was looking for a tincture of milk thistle (Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn.) I could not find it in the ‘S’ section. Someone then suggested I look under ’C’ where I found a bottle labelled ‘Milk thistle – Carduus marianus’. It turned out Carduus marianus L. was the scientific name for milk thistle for many years, but that it was later changed to Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn. The manufacturer was still using the old name to label their product.
The correct scientific name of milk thistle is Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn. but older names are still used in the herbal medicine trade (Photo: Jason Irving)
One plant, many names
This incident introduced me to the problem of synonyms: one species of plant can often have several different scientific names. Because most plants were first named two or three hundred years ago, when global communication was more difficult than today, it was possible for botanists to publish different names for the same plant. Now there are a series of rules for deciding which of these published names to use, which then becomes the ‘accepted name’.
When I was researching the medicinal actions of a herb for my coursework it was important to find out all the synonyms so I could access all the research done on a species, as just using one name is unlikely to return many results. Studies have shown that just searching on the most used scientific name can return as little as 20% of the research on that species.
Solving the problem
Medicinal Plant Names Services (MPNS) are building on the work of these projects to provide a reliable reference for finding the accepted name for a medicinal plant, and all the synonyms that have been used for it. Significantly it will also include common names used in medicinal plant literature from all over the world, as well as pharmaceutical names that are used in the herbal medicine trade and Pharmacopoeias. This all adds up to a lot of names - at present there are around 140,000 names in the resource for at least 10,000 species.
I was lucky enough to join the MPNS team last month on a sandwich student placement, so called because I will spend a year here ‘sandwiched’ between the second and third years of my undergraduate degree. It is a great opportunity for me to be able to work at Kew, especially on medicinal plants, and I look forward to helping to build a resource that will make the maze of plant names easier to navigate.
In future posts I will be exploring the origin of scientific names and their use in herbal medicine, why plant names change, and what names can tell us about plants.
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Introduction to our work
During their visit Marina and Matthew were introduced to the work of MPNS, its relevance to the regulation and safety of medicinal plants and extracts, and our ambition to increase our impact on health across Europe. We introduced our visitors to the central problem that the MPNS has been set up to address - the confusions and misunderstandings that arise from the misuse and misinterpretation of scientific plant names, as well as of common names and the names recorded in national pharmacopeia.
As an example we showed them the spice Illicium verum Hook.f. (Star Anise) and its toxic relative Illicium anisatum L. (Japanese Star Anise) - two plants with very different chemistry which look similar and are confused, even in official legislation.
We also showed them five species belonging to the genus Actaea L. - all of which are referred to as ‘Cimicifugae Rhizoma’ in different pharmacopoeia, again despite these plants having very different pharmacological uses.
Illicium verum (star anise) fruit (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)
Marina saw something of Kew’s wider work through two brief subsequent visits. The first was to Kew’s collection of over 7 million specimens housed in the Herbarium with its impressive red spiral staircases and open-plan galleries. Marina saw reference collections of herbal plants and even some specimens collected by Darwin. Marina then visited the Chinese Medicinal Plants Authentication and Conservation Centre.
MEP Marina Yannakoudakis in the Chinese Medicinal Plants Authentication and Conservation Centre with Christine Leon, Matthew Green and Jo O'Shea (Photo: Andrew McRobb)
The Chinese Medicinal Plants Authentication and Conservation Centre houses a reference collection of some 4,500 specimens of medicinal plant drugs under ‘controlled’ (i.e. cold and dry) conditions. The conditions ensure the preservation of these materials for use in chemical and molecular profiling. Those of us wearing jackets were grateful to have them! Marina gained further insights into the practical difficulties facing regulators, herbalists, suppliers and the pharmaceutical trade as to the authenticity of herbal ingredients as well as to appropriate labelling.
Finally, Marina and Matthew met with Kew’s Director, Richard Deverell and discussed the wider European relevance of MPNS.
Director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew with MEP Marina Yannakoudakis and MPNS's Bob Allkin (Photo: Andrew McRobb)
We are very grateful to Ms Yannakoudakis MEP for her interest in the MPNS and for the advice she shared about how we might increase the impact of our work for health regulators across Europe.
- MPNS Team -
- Information about Marina Yannakoudakis MEP
- Kew’s Chinese Medicinal Plants Authentication and Conservation Centre (CMPACC)
- Visit the MPNS pages
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About the MPNS Team
The Medicinal Plant Names Services team includes taxonomists, health advisors, botanical and information scientists with a wide range of expertise including nomenclature, medicinal and poisonous plant information, pharmacovigilance, software development, information products support and project management.
This multi-disciplinary mix is enabling us to build on Kew’s existing plant name resources and experience to develop a medicinal plant names portal and other services, designed to meet the needs of pharmacological researchers, health regulators, practitioners of traditional medicine and the functional foods industry.
The team can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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