What’s in a name?

That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

W. Shakespeare

It starts in April with trees that stand outside the science building, their thin, arching, alternate branches rising from multiple slender trunks. They are tipped with oval, finely serrated leaves and delicate white blossoms promising some sort of fruit. The bark is relatively smooth, mottled gray and olive green. We note all of these characteristics, and then I tell a story about how this tree traditionally served as a clock, its blossoms and fruit signaling the arrival of spring and summer, warmer weather, fish spawning, and opportunities for people to travel and gather. Serviceberry, shadbush, and juneberry are some of its common names, but the students focus only on the berry part. “Can we eat it?” “Yes, when it turns dark red, in a few weeks.” The primary affordance, or opportunity for interaction, of this tree for these kids is its edibility, so that is what they latch onto and remember. If they were to come up with their own meaningful (if lengthy) name for Amelanchier canadensis, it would likely be “Berries by the science building that we can eat when they’re red, hopefully before school is out.”

The goal of challenging fourth graders to learn to identify 50 plants in a matter of weeks is less about names and far more about meaning. Renaming plants to increase the likelihood of recognizing them again increases the fun of learning them. My goal is for students is to really look at plants, to see their differences and unique qualities, to recognize how they live in their habitat. Are they in a wetland? Creeping up a tree? Smothering the forest floor? Sensory experience is key, and beyond the obvious visual clues, we utilize smell, taste, and touch whenever it is safe to do so.

When I first ask the class to name the plants they see as they look around our schoolyard, they say, “Grass and weeds.” This launches several questions. For “What’s a weed?” I offer my favorite definition: A plant in the wrong place. Box elder is a fine tree in the woods that we can tap for sap in the spring, but its helicopter seeds create weeds when they land in the vegetable garden. Then I ask them to pick a piece of what they consider grass. They show me a variety of leaf blades, and then I hand them another part of grass: the flower. “What!? Grass has flowers? Mind blown!” That is a direct quote.

Looking closer at the plants that we are sitting on, I wonder aloud, “Shouldn’t plants with leaves this different have different names?” Holding up one of the leaves, I ask them what the margin reminds them of. “Sharp teeth,” they agree. Then I ask a member of the class who speaks fluent French how to say “Tooth of the lion.” “Dent de lion,” he replies promptly. “Oh, dandelion!” the others chorus. “And the flower looks like a lion’s mane!” From then on, dandelions are “tooth of the lion.”

One of our favorite spring plants in the woods is Galium aparine, aka cleavers or bedstraw. But neither of these common names has obvious meaning relative to what it affords a 4th grader, so instead we call it simply “Velcro.” Beyond creating wearable fashion statements from its super-sticky stems, it has sparked a tag game: secretly attach a strand to another person, then dash away yelling, “You’ve been Velcroed!” before the victim can retaliate by Velcroing you.

“How about THIS?” I asked another day, handing each student a long, pointed leaf from a species of tree whose crowns tower over all others in the woods. “Crush the leaf. Now take a deep breath.. and then tell me its name.” Some kids gagged, others looked surprised. “Peanut butter?” “Disgusting!” “Pumpkin!” “Yuck!” I admitted, after their reactions had calmed, that my personal name for this tree is “stink tree,” but some people really like the smell. In fact, its common name is tree of heaven due to its height, which also allows its wind-borne seeds to float away and colonize wherever they land, even in a sidewalk crack. “So it has superpowers!” one student declared. An apt description for the ubiquitous Ailanthus altissima.

For years, I have habitually paused to hug certain trees as I lead groups through the Jemicy woods. “Why?” the kids ask. “Well…, because they are just so…huggable. Try it!”

I should have known that these American beeches with their beautifully toothed leaves and smooth gray trunks would forever bear this name. As in, “I think I’ll build my fort under this huggable tree,” and “I think I found a baby huggable tree!”

At Jemicy, multiflora rose is known as “the living fence,” (and gingerly tested for its ability to contain large mammals).

Giant burdock is “elephant’s ear.” Also “salad plate.”

Tuliptree is “foxface.”

Oxalis is “sourgrass.”

Jewelweed is “the unsinkable leaf that can stop poison ivy.”

Poison ivy needs no renaming. It is one plant whose common name alone can stop an impulsive hand in mid-reach.

Even plant pests can find themselves renamed. Upon meeting the hemlock woolly adelgid, a student promptly dubbed them “Fuzz bugs,” and the name stuck.

In probably my favorite naming moment this spring, I was introducing students to a lanky understory tree, some of whose leaves were oval, some mitten-like, and some had lobes that one person thought looked like small green ghosts. Yes, we all agreed – it was a remarkable resemblance.

Once again, I handed out leaves with instructions to crush and sniff them. This time there was no gagging – just wide eyes and a look of delight. “It’s Froot Loops!” someone shouted, and the entire class joined in: “YES! FROOT LOOPS!” Then, in a ghostly voice, someone whispered, “It’s Froo-oo-oot Loo-oo-oops!” Who knows – maybe next year’s class will decide that this tree should be called something entirely different than Spooky Froot Loops, but (with apologies to Shakespeare) I wonder: If I had insisted they call it “sassafras,” would it smell as sweet?