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What’s in a Name?

After a brief walk on a cold and dreary January day, I curled up in my study and tried to update Bioplum, a natural inventory of our property. Last spring I had finally identified a nondescript-looking wildflower spreading along our roadbank as Pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica), and I wanted to add it to our list of wildflowers along with several other new species. But I was sidetracked by what I thought was a simple question. How many other plants and animals have “Pennsylvania” in their common and/or scientific names?

An exhaustive search in my books and on the Internet stretched into several afternoons. But I found 18 plants, including four tree species, nine insects, a mammal, bird and mollusk. Of those, two species have never lived in Pennsylvania and two have been re-named in some sources. According to Bioplum, at least 13 of the species live on our mountain.

As usual, the plant classifications caused me the most headaches, especially the wildflowers. With the help of The Plants of Pennsylvania by Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Block, in addition to Pennsylvania bittercress, I found Polygonum pensylvanicum (Pennsylvania smartweed or pinkweed) that blankets our cut trails in summer, Parietaria pensylvanica (pellitory), Ranunculus pensylvanicus (bristly crowfoot), and Saxifraga pensylvanica (swamp or Pennsylvania saxifrage), none of which grow on our mountain.

But where was Viola pensylvanica or smooth yellow violet that grows along our stream and around our exclosure? While some botanical sites on the Internet still listed it as Viola pensylvanica, Rhoads and Block consider it a variety of V. pubescens, the downy yellow violet. They call it V.pubescens var. scabriuscula. No doubt that is probably the now acceptable classification for V. pensylvanica because scientific names are usually changed only if taxonomists determine a mistake has been made in the original classification of a plant. But since I’ve always had a great fondness for V. pensylvanica and have considered its common name pedestrian, I prefer “Pennsylvania violet.” After all, common names often depend on local tradition and back in 1796, when our property was constantly changing hands, it was called “Violet Hill,” a more evocative name than today’s “Brush Mountain.” To celebrate the original name of our mountain, I decided that from now on, at least on our property, smooth yellow violet will be called Pennsylvania violet.

Another wildflower that baffled me was Gnaphalium pensylvanicum or Gamochaeta pensylvanica, popularly called Pennsylvania cudweed, Pennsylvania everlasting or wandering cudweed according to a variety of Internet sources including a floristic database from Taiwan and another from western Australia. No wonder it’s called “wandering cudweed.” A native of the Americas, it has spread to eastern and southern Asia. Rhoads and Block list five cudwell species under the genus Gnaphalium, but none of them are pensylvanica or pensylvanicum, both of which mean “of Pennsylvania.”

Still another problem was Potentilla pensylvanica var. strigosa, known as Pennsylvania cinquefoil, which, according to Edward G. Voss in Michigan Flora, grows mostly west and north of the Great Lakes. Not satisfied with that explanation, I tracked it down on a USDA site with range maps where I discovered that Pennsylvania cinquefoil grows no farther south in the northeastern United States than Vermont and New Hampshire. Then it skips out to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, but not Wisconsin, and on through the Midwest and western United States. However, it is a threatened plant in Iowa.

Like many of our plants, P. pensylvanica was originally named by Swedish naturalist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus, who received thousands of plants throughout the world from field botanists in the eighteenth century. Perhaps P. pensylvanica had been part of a shipment of plants from Pennsylvania, not all of which had actually been collected here. For instance, John Bartram, a Quaker naturalist from Philadelphia and the King’s Botanist who Linnaeus called the “greatest natural botanist in the world,” had traveled as far north as Lake Ontario, as far south as Florida, and as far west as the Ohio River and had shipped thousands of plants abroad, both old and new discoveries. We also seem to have lost the only fern that had pensylvanica as its species’ name–the beautiful ostrich fern that grows down by the river. Still known as Struthiopteris pensylvanica in some sources and Matteuccia pensylvanica in John T. Mickel’s Ferns and Fern Allies, Rhoads and Block call it Matteuccia struthiopteris.

The Pennsylvania-named sedges, grasses, and rushes have all retained their names. Pennsylvania sedge, Penn sedge, or yellow sedge is Carex pensylvanica. Swamp-oats or swamp wedgescale has two apparently acceptable scientific names–Sphenopholis pensylvanica or Trisetum pensylvanicum. Pennsylvania sedge is a common species that grows in dry, open woods and wooded slopes, including ours, but swamp-oats prefers swamps, wet woods, or springy meadows in southeastern and southcentral Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania rush or Coville’s rush is Juncus gymnocarpus and is a rare species found “in sphagnous swamps, seeps, and springheads; mostly in or near Schuylkill County,” according to Rhoads and Block.

Of course, I was pleased to learn that one of my favorite fruits–the blackberry–has one species named Rubus pensilvanicus, although that name may eventually be lost because Rhoads and Block write that “the taxonomy of Rubus, especially the blackberries, is complicated…[and] more study is needed to resolve the status of the many species that have been described over the years.”

Well, at least the northern bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica, looks safe. But wait! Rhoads and Block have a parenthetical comment about this deciduous shrub. “[Wilbur (1994) places M. pensylvanica in the segregate Morella as M. caroliniensis….]” We can only hope that Wilbur’s name is not generally accepted, although admittedly the aromatic bayberry, beloved of candlemakers, is primarily a denizen of sandy shore dunes along the Atlantic Ocean. But it also grows along the Lake Erie shoreline and the borders of Pymatuning Swamp in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Thank goodness the Pennsylvania trees seem secure. Best known is Acer pensylvanicum, the striped maple, also called “moosewood” because moose like to browse on it. White-tailed deer are not supposed to, although during the winter here they do eat it. Striped maple is a personal favorite of mine because of its attractive white-striped greenish bark, beautiful yellow-green drooping flowers, and the bright gold its leaves turn in the autumn.

Prunus pensylvanica, the pin or fire cherry, grows on our rockslides as a small tree and on the cliffs beside the railroad tracks where it reaches a respectable size. It too has distinctive bark–“smooth, reddish-brown with conspicuous horizontal, orange lenticels,” according to the sumptuous Trees of Pennsylvania by Rhoads and Block, the same botanical pair that gave us The Plants of Pennsylvania. A stunning book filled with closeup color photos of the bark, flowers, and seeds of almost every tree species, along with range maps, the Trees of Pennsylvania also contains an excellent glossary that defines “lenticel” as “a corky growth on the surface of a twig through which gas exchange occurs.” As tree-lovers, my husband, Bruce, son Dave and I have spent many happy hours browsing through this informative book.

Fraxinus pensylvanica, the green ash, does not grow on our mountain probably because it likes wet woods, lowland stream banks and moist fields. “Native Americans,” Rhoads and Block write, “used an infusion of the inner bark as a tonic to treat depression and fatigue.”

As far as we know, we also don’t have Crataegus pennsylvanica, the Pennsylvania hawthorn. But then hawthorns are notoriously difficult to identify, “even for professional botanists,” Rhoads and Block admit. It’s also comparatively rare, even globally, having been found only in southern Ontario, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia. But it does grow in several sites in southern Pennsylvania.

Our only “Pennsylvania” mammal, the meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), is abundant throughout the state. Popularly known as the “field mouse,” its runways through long field grasses and weeds are especially noticeable in our First and Far fields during the winter. The most common vole species throughout North America, its plump body provides food for a wide variety of birds and animals from black bears to great blue herons.

Dendroica pensylvanica, the chestnut-sided warbler, sings “please please please ta meetcha,” and so we are pleased to meet this handsome bird named for the thick chestnut streak on each side of its breast. It likes early-successional forests for breeding and spends its summers throughout our state.

Strangely enough, Linnaeus also named a marine mollusk for our state, Lucina pensylvanica or the Pennsylvania lucine back in 1758.

Finally, the insects, one of which–Vespula pensylvanica, the western yellow jacket, is not found in the eastern United States. No one knows why it was named the Pennsylvania yellow jacket.

But we do have two other species of the Hymenoptera Order–the Pennsylvania wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus) and the Pennsylvania bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus). The latter appears to be, from photographs on the Web, the plump, yellow and black bumblebee that I see on our wild and domestic flowers.

The remaining five of the Pennsylvania-named insects are beetles, which is not surprising since beetles are among the most diverse and abundant life forms on earth. Its Order–Coleoptera–is also the largest insect order with 111 families. The Peterson Field Guide Beetles by Richard C. White identifies only to insect families, the classification above genus and species, because there are too many North American beetle species to identify in one field guide.

But he does mention some well-known species such as Colliurus pensylvanica the distinctive Pennsylvania long-necked ground beetle with its triangular-shaped black head and greatly-elongated prothorax (the first of three body segments that holds the wings and legs). Its thorax is black-spotted on an orange background. Steve, our eldest son and now resident amateur entomologist who specializes in beetles, has found this species, which occurs over much of North America, on our property.

Chlaenius pensylvanicus pensylvanicus and Pterostichus pensylvanicus are ground beetles and, like the Pennsylvania long-necked ground beetles are in the Carabidae family, whereas Chauliognathus pensylvanicus, a soldier beetle, is in the Cantharidae family and is the brilliant orange and black beetle that is abundant on our goldenrod in late summer.

Steve has also listed Photuris pensylvanicus, the Pennsylvania firefly, in Bioplum. A member of the Lampyridae family, it is one of 20 Photuris species in the eastern United States and is a beetle, not a fly. Watching fireflies on June and July is one of my favorite pastimes and a reason to be glad that I live in the eastern United States. The West, for all its grandeur, doesn’t have these charismatic insects.

Epicauta pensylvanica, the black blister beetle in the Meloidae family, also inhabits our goldenrod. Like all blister beetles, when it is disturbed, it emits “blood” from its knee joints and other body parts that can raise blisters on the skin and deters some predators such as birds and ground beetles.

No doubt I have missed many other Pennsylvania-named insect species, but since I was bug-eyed (no pun intended) after hours on the Internet looking up the literally thousands of references to pensylvanica, pensylvanicus, and pensylvanicum, I left it at an even 30 species. Next time I’ll deal with all the Philadelphia species! Think Philadelphia vireo (Vireo philadelphicus), rock sea bass (Centropristis philadelphica), dogwood calligrapha (Calligraph philadelphica), and mourning warbler (Opornis philadelphia), among others. The possibilities are almost endless for whiling away the long winter hours.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. off the top of my head: Philadelphus, genus of mock orange; Panicum philadelphicum, Philadelphia panic grass; Lilium philadelphicum, wood lily nice blog, I’ll be back.

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