Since I was a little kid, I’ve been fascinated by the names we humans have given the organisms living and growing around us.
My paternal grandfather, a small time Southern farmer, used to take me on walks through his fields and tell me the cultivar names of beans and potatoes and peanuts, and, though my five year-old self could hardly pronounce them, I’ve always remembered the Latin name of corn is Zea.
Mushrooms used to abound on his field. There was a stand of oak trees which supported an entire population of Amanita persicina, and all kinds of little dung-loving mushrooms used to pop up in between the well-fertilized rows of crops. My grandfather, who had never had a formal education beyond elementary school, called them “toadstools” and regaled me with great tales about fairy rings forming on the ground where farmland sprite hosted dance parties. Looking back, my grandfather’s stories uncannily predicted my love for fungi.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve become unsatisfied with calling mushrooms “toadstools”; I’ve recognized not all fungi have a cap which can serve as a resting place for a wayward amphibian; and, I’ve recognized that the marvelous shapes, forms, and color of fungi cannot adequately be described by the word “toadstool.” It’s no coincidence, then, that I am not the first to think of this: Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, employed the Latin language, using some loaned Greek words, to set out creating a system that would allow anyone and everyone on the globe to talk about discrete species of organisms without being bound by native languages and regional dialects.
“Linnaeus’s taxonomy helped unite the collective, scientific understanding of biologically unique organisms under one banner.”
Taxonomical Latin, despite its many rules and learning curves, has allowed for the proliferation and advancement of biology across the globe. Before Linnaeus, a single species of fungi found could have five or six completely distinct names in one language. In one part of Europe, a mushroom might be known as “a Scotch Bonnet,” whereas in another part of Europe the same mushroom might be known as “a field-fowl mushroom.” Linnaeus’s taxonomy helped unite the collective, scientific understanding of biologically unique organisms under one banner.
In the few hundred years since Linnaeus’ death, many new taxa have been described in mycology, breaking away from Linnaeus’ original, broadly defined genera Agaricus and Boletus. In the Agaricaceae (-ceae, here, means “family”), there are now more than 80 genera, and more will likely be developed as we continue to study.
For instance, the famous fly agaric, or Amanita muscaria, once called Agaricus muscarius by Linnaeus, has now been broken down into at least three distinct species: Amanita persicina, Amanita chrysoblema, and the true Amanita muscaria. Taxonomically, it’s fairly simple to see that each is separate from the other, but, if we were to use their common names, confusion begins to arise: Amanita chrysoblema describes the “yellow-colored fly agaric,” the “American fly agaric,” and “the white fly agaric.” What’s to keep us from misidentifying a mushroom purely because it’s both white and a fly agaric?
“Common names are meant for casual talk about fungi, not for scientific/academic discussion or identification.”
Common names are meant for casual talk about fungi, not for scientific/academic discussion or identification. When you go to a farmers market in search of wild mushrooms, it’s completely ok to ask for “Hen-of-the-Woods,” instead of Grifola frondosa; you presumably speak the same language as the vendor and you’re in a semi-relaxed environment where specificity isn’t exactly required: there is only one hen-of-the-woods and most people aren’t interested in other species of Grifola when purchasing mushrooms for dinner.
However, if your foraging buddy sends you a picture of a mushroom and asks you for suggestions about its identity, a simple “inky cap” or “shaggy mane” won’t suffice, as there are several fungi in the Psathyrellaceae which look shaggy and turn to ink in old age.
This all might sound draconian: “I have to learn something else?” But Latin names and the system that comes with them can help you as a mycologist in myriad ways. Not only will you communicate about mushrooms more accurately and more efficiently, but binomial nomenclature opens up doors to understanding the history of fungi’s collective evolution.
“You’ll soon be able to draw similarities between the Pluteaceae and the Amanitaceae, just by understanding how they fit together taxonomically.”
You’ll soon be able to draw similarities between the Pluteaceae and the Amanitaceae, just by understanding how they fit together taxonomically. Latin will help you as a scientist and, in the long run, you won’t have to call everything a “toadstool.”
The truth is, whether it’s Latin names and common names, mushrooms will still smell as sweet.
How often do YOU use binomials? Leave us a comment.