By Katie Koerten Gazette Contributing Writer
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.
—Romeo and Juliet
When I was a kid, my father guided my earliest forays into the woods, meadows and streams of the Blackstone Valley in central Massachusetts where I grew up. He was the one who first taught me the names of the plants and animals around me.
One of my favorite things he would find for us was a tree with glossy brown bark. When we chewed the twigs, they filled our mouths with a delicious taste like root beer: “Teaberry,” my dad called it. Before Christmas we would go out in the forest collecting material to make wreaths. My dad taught us to recognize the “deer grass,” which made the best wreaths and covered the forest floor behind our house. And one of the most special creatures you could find, if you were quiet enough in a wetland or marsh, was the magnificent “crane” that stalked fish silently and with the scarcest of movements. So said my dad.
However, when I began to work with other people who loved nature, I discovered that many folks hadn’t heard of teaberry before. Deer grass didn’t refer to anything they knew, and cranes weren’t something we had in New England. I found out the names I had for things weren’t exactly correct. I had seen teaberry gum before, but the tree whose twigs we chewed was not called teaberry. Rather, it was black birch, Betula lenta. “Come on, don’t you know deer grass?” I’d say. “It grows everywhere in the woods!” Alas, the common name for deer grass was princess or ground pine (Lycopodium obscurum). It wasn’t long before I realized the cranes of my youth were actually great blue herons (Ardea herodias), and that “crane” was not an accurate term for them at all.
A stickler for proper spelling, grammar and names, I was frustrated at first that I was wrong. But that soon gave way to the pleasure of discovery. I’m a nature enthusiast—and I majored in English at college—so I love learning what species are named and why. When I notice a new flower or bird, my personal thrill is to get to know not only its common name but also its Latin name and etymology, which often tell a story.
When I’m in the field with young children, though, I do things differently; I put scientific names aside. My aim as an environmental educator is to help kids make connections with the natural world in keeping with their level of development. One of my most important jobs is to facilitate sensory experiences with the environment: plants and animals, streams and rocks. It means following the sound of wood frogs all the way to the vernal pool, to watch them jump in and make a splash. It also means learning how to climb trees and balance on fallen logs.
When children have a chance to explore natural places, over time they develop their own favorite spots and names for things. For example, here at the Hitchcock Center, children in our programs discovered that when they chewed wild chives, it gave them bad breath. So they dubbed wild chives “poison breath.” My friend in Vermont has taught her preschoolers to recognize wood sorrel and nibble its lemony leaves. The children noticed the shape of the leaves, and named the plant “lemon hearts.” “I never noticed that about the leaves,” my friend told me, “But they do look like hearts and now the children can easily tell sorrel apart from lookalikes.”
Despite my affinity for identifying plants and animals by their proper names, I have made it my practice to de-emphasize naming when I’m teaching. After all, what use is the scientific name to a youngster who hasn’t yet learned to read and write? Better to foster curiosity and wonder, connecting the natural world to children’s lives in ways that are meaningful. Maybe they will grow up and study botany formally and maybe they won’t, but the important thing is that they come to love nature, and want to explore and protect it. The important thing about my dad teaching me all those “incorrect” names was not the names themselves, but the relationships I formed with those plants and animals, and the ability to recognize them and relate to them in my own way.
So when I’m with a group of children and we come upon a greater celandine plant, I don’t say, “Oh, look everyone! Chelidonium majus!” Instead I might pick a piece off the plant and show children how I can draw on my skin with its orange sap. Then, next time they spot the familiar yellow flowers with rounded, lobed leaves in their yard or in a parking lot, they might wonder if it’s the same “marker plant” we used to write on ourselves that day—and they might just snap off a piece to find out.
Katie Koerten is an environmental educator and coordinator of child and family programs at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.Click here to return to full list of Earth Matters articles.