April 3, 2008

Herbal Confusion

By Allen Cordell Horticulturist II, Pinellas County Extension

We’ve all heard the old adage; “You’re in the right church, but the wrong pew!” This relates to a comparison of what is partially correct, but not absolutely accurate. Botanical confusion occurs when common, ethnic, or country names, are applied to various plants, based on their appearances, their uses, or their fragrances. However, once a plant is correctly identified by its scientific name, the native habitat, growth habit, flowering season, temperature tolerances, and cultivation, can all be accurately researched. A cook or an herbalist may inquire further regarding the plants usefulness. Does it have edible, medicinal, or economic value? Is it toxic?
A client visited our lobby, dragging a potted tree behind her. The ungainly plant had been labeled and bought as a nutmeg tree. Our staff determined the tree to be a bellyache bush (Jatropha gossypifolia). This genus, within the Euphorbia Family, is quite poisonous and should never have been sold as nutmeg. True commercial nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) is a tropical tree native to the Molluca Islands (“Spice Islands”) of Indonesia. Common names can be very misleading.

Herbal confusion can also be applied to the culinary plant cilantro or coriander. Both common names refer to the same plant, which is botanically known as (Coriandrum sativum). Chinese-parsley or cilantro refers to the plants’ bitter foliage which is picked throughout this hardy annuals’ growing season. However, when a recipe calls for coriander, it’s the pleasingly aromatic mature seeds that are called for. Another related species is tropical cilantro (Eryngium foetidum) or culantro. This Tropical American perennial has a stronger, more pungent flavor, so it is used more sparingly.

When tomatoes were first introduced into Southern Europe, early botanists considered the fruit poisonous. They were obviously wrong. They had probably equated them with such toxic herbs such as mandrake, belladonna, and henbane, which also belong to the Solanaceae Family. But, children and livestock have been poisoned by eating the poisonous stems of tomato plants.

During an online search, I had hoped to locate a seed or plant source for frankincense and myrrh. I never realized how numerous the Internet sources were relating to incense, incense burners, herbal ointments, resins, and suggested books! One party responded to my inquiry and was surprised that, being a horticulturist, I was unaware of her correct botanical answer and source. However, she was referring to sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata), a fragrant anise-scented herb from Europe, and a relative of parsley. True myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) that I was looking for is a scraggly, thorny, desert shrub, or small tree, from East Africa and India. It is famed for incense, much like its cousin frankincense (Boswellia carterii).

Another misconception that can lead to confusion is the many plants which resemble palms. The pony-tail palm, Madagascar palm, travelers’ palm, king sago, and queen sago palm are not palms at all; they simply resemble palms.

Shakespeare once said, “A rose by any other name, is still a rose.” Perhaps a plant is what we perceive it to be, based upon our own knowledge of its use and how it impacts our lives.
The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature is responsible for maintaining the scientific names of all of the known plants:

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