Home Mississippi River Plants

Glossary of botanical identification features


American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Water Smartweed (Polygonum amphibium)

Sharp-winged Monkey-Flower (Mimulus alatus)

Halberd-leaved Rosemallow (Hibiscus laevis)

Whitefield Aster (Aster simplex)



River Bulrush (Scirpus fluviatilis)



Wild Millet (Echinocloa muricata)

Prairie Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata)

Redtop Panicum (Panicum rigidulum)



Black Willow (Salix nigra)

Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)

Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)

Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

There is a story about the conservationist, Edward Abby, that when he was working as a Park Ranger children would ask him "What is that?" and then point to a particular plant they were curious about. His reported reply was, "Well, nobody knows what it is, but white men call it...," and then he would fill in the blank with the scientific Latin classification name.

The naming of a thing allows us access to a body of knowledge and narrative about the thing; and yet, too often we are left with the illusion that by knowing what a thing is called (whether in English, Latin, Chinese, or Sioux) we, therefore, know what it is.

Never the less, we must begin somewhere, and a name is as good a place as any.

Now, plants frequently have more than one name. Often, we call a plant by its common name (in English,) and frequently that name has a bias towards its usefulness to humans. For instance, the name Swamp Milkweed tells us that someone (probably a gardener,) once thought of this plant as a "weed," that it has some sort of a fluid that looks like "milk" when you break it in half as you are pulling it up, and that it is frequently found in "swamps." And yet, a "weed" is just a plant in a place that is inconvenient for gardeners, the "milk" is slightly poisonous to humans, and a "swamp" is just a place with too much water to be useful for man's gardening purposes anyway.

If we spoke the language of butterflies, we might be surprised to learn that the same plant is called "bzz-fft-ftt-ftt", which (roughly translated,) means "Purple-pink-sweet-food-by-the-water."

There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of plants in the world. Scientists have developed a system of names for plants and animals over the last 2300 years so that we can be clear about which specific plant we are speaking about. Botany is the study of plants, and taxonomic systematics is the system by which plants and animals are named. The names are in Latin, because that is the language Western scientists commonly used hundreds of years ago, even if they spoke different languages.

So, an Italian botanist and a German botanist (for instance,) would both be writing about Aesclepias Incarnata when they wrote letters to each other, rather confusing things by having an Italian name and a German name for the same plant

This would be just an abbreviated name, however. The system actually has a series of names that string together from the most general level, the Kingdom, down to the most specific level of species identification.

For instance, the American Lotus pictured in the upper right, would be found in a taxonomic botanical key to have the following name:

Kingdom- "Plantae", (Plants)
Subkingdom- "Tracheobionta", (Vascular plants)
Superdivision- "Spermatophyta", (Seed plants)
Division- "Magnoliophyta", (Flowering plants)
Class- "Magnoliopsida", (Dicotyledons)
Subclass- "Magnoliidae"
Order- "Nymphaeales",""
Family- "Nelumbonaceae", (Lotus-lily family)
Genus- "Nelumbo Adans." (lotus)
Species- "Nelumbo lutea, Willd.",(American lotus)

While many of the words above are, in fact, Latin; others are simply dressed up to look as if they are Latin. For instance, the word "lutea" means yellow in Latin; but the word "nelumbo" is actually the Singhalese (Sinhalese, or Tamil,) word for lotus as recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary. Other plants contain the names of the person who "discovered" or rather documented the particular species- for instance, Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata) commemorates Giulio Pontedera, an 18th century botany professor who spent a lifetime studying that particular genus of plants.

Nelumbo lutea distinguishes the American species as distinct from its sister-plant Nelumbo nucifera which is native to Asia and has pinkish white flowers. It was named by Carl Ludwig von Willdenow (Willd.) in the book, Species Plantarum. Editio quarta (4th edition) in 1799. So what?

When Edward Abby said "white men call it..." he was not being a racist, but was pointing out that other ethnic cultures have different understandings and names for things. For instance, we know that many Native American tribes ate various parts of nelumbo lutea.

The Ojibway (Chippewa) language spoken by the Illiniwek, the Kickapoo, the Micamec and other tribes native to the area, contains the word "Makopin," or "Macoupin"; which one source transliterates as  "bear's potato" and refers to nelumbo lutea. They cite:    Baraga, Frederic, A Dictionary of the Ojibway Language, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1878/1992 as a source.

The 1913 edition of Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary contains:

Yon"co*pin (?), n. [Perhaps corrupted from Illinois micoupena, Chippewa makopin, the American lotus.] (Bot.) A local name in parts of the Mississippi Valley for the American lotus (Nelumbo lutea).


The words themselves may have translated to something like "edible nut," for they were also associated with  the Burr Oak. I once heard nelumbo lutea referred to as "long toes," which fits with what we know that some tribes peeled and boiled the starchy tubers like potatoes. Regrettably, other names by which this plant was known may have already passed from our collective knowledge.

Beth with American Lotus (Nelumba lutea)
We saw these beautiful Lotus flowers at several places on the river and in the wetlands.

Christine with "Dock" and assorted flowers.

Botanist Nels Holmberg talks about the importance of this plant as habitat and food for butterflies.

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

This was our groups first experience walking through the marshes of Pharr's Island.