It’s all Greek to me

Every species of living things has its own unique scientific name, following a system laid out by Carl Linnaeus in his book “Systema Naturae” in 1758.

The rules to naming a new living thing are very vague, it just has to be in Latin and follow a 2 name system with a genus and species name. This allows for some interesting backstories to sneak in according to the whims of the scientist who first described and named the genus. Here are some plants which carry with them beautiful Greek stories along with some pretty petals.


Hyacinth

The genus Hyacinthus refers to a group of bulbous plants with fragrant and brightly coloured flowers that group in a tight cluster on its stalk. The bulbs of the Hyacinth plant contain oxalic acid that can cause skin irritation if handled without protection. Oxalic acid is strong enough to remove rust, so you can imagine how well this works for the plant as a defence mechanism.

The story of Hyacinthus can be traced to a tragic Greek legend. Hyacinthus was a strikingly handsome Spartan prince, which proved a blessing and a curse. Young Hyacinthus caught the eye of the god, Apollo.

Well, Apollo was not alone as Zephyrus, the west wind, also had his eyes on the strapping young lad. But Zephyrus, bitten by the bug of jealously, was not at all happy seeing Apollo and Hyacinthus together. One day when Apollo and Hyacinthus were throwing the discus (imagine a heavy frisbee) together, Zephyrus shifted the winds so that the discus flew into Hyacinthus head, mortally wounding him.


As he died in the grieving Apollo’s arms, the god transformed his dear friend into a flower to immortalize his beauty. This flower bears the sweet prince’s name of Hyacinthus of which we still call it to this day.


Deadly Nightshade

One of the most toxic plants is the Atropa belladonna, known as the Deadly Nightshade. Every part of this plant is poisonous, the roots being the deadliest, followed by the flowers and the sweet-looking berries. Ingesting just five of its berries can kill a child while 10 – 20 can kill a man.


Such is the potency of Atropa belladonna. Unbelievably, this deadly plant was once used in cosmetics to dilate pupils and make them seem more beautiful. Overuse of this plant could cause hallucination, blindness or even death. Looks to die for?

Where did Atropa belladonna get its name from? Both the plant and the toxin found in it, atropine, get their name from an equally deadly being in Greek mythology: Atropos. She is 1 of 3 sisters collectively known as the Moirai, also known as the fate sisters.


Each one of the sisters had a specific role in governing the lives and destinies of mortals. There is Clotho who spins out the thread of life for all beings, governing over when one is born. Lachesis, who measures out the thread with her measuring rod, determines what fate shall befall the individual. Lastly, Atropos, who cuts the thread of life with her shears, decides when and how one’s life ends.


Also known as the “inevitable” or “unturnable” one, there was no bargaining or reasoning with the fate Atropos meted out. When she cuts off a life thread, that life will end. A fitting name for a plant (Atropa belladonna) that can do just the same.


Grapes

Let us move on to something less deadly, grapes. The scientific name for this fruit is Vitis spp, but where does the Greek part come in? Grapes on their own are harmless, but after some processing, they become something else entirely: wine. Wine has been widely consumed and beloved by all cultures, even until today. For the Greeks, wine was associated with the god Dionysus who was literally the god of wine, among other things. The scientific names of other living things have sprouted from the humble grape and wine owing to the adventures of our Greek party god, Dionysus.

In his travels to spread the joys of winemaking to the rest of the European world, he went to the country of Assyria (in modern-day Iraq). There, he visited King Staphylos, Queen Methe and their son Botrys. Being a great guest that brought his own bottle, Dionysus wowed the royal crowd with his wine and proceeded to have a smashing party. Unfortunately, King Staphylos passed on the next day. In his honour, Dionysus named various aspects of the grapes and wine after the royal family. A bunch of grapes was called Staphylos, the state of drunkenness was called Methe, and the grapes themselves were called Botrys.


Fast forward to modern-day, when biologists in the 19th century looked into their microscopes to view bacteria that clumped together like a bunch of grapes. They named that genus of bacteria Staphylococcus, after the round-shaped bacteria (coccus) and Staphylos. These bacteria are responsible for a range of ailments including food poisoning, cellulitis and impetigo, with the latter two being skin infections caused by certain types of bacteria.

Methe we would know from methanol, a compound we label as an alcohol. The scientists named methanol after wine, though wine itself does not contain methanol, and the prefix “meth- “has stuck ever since. By the way, methanol is poisonous!

Botrys is a fungus that is commonly found on grapes called Botryis cinerea. Under the right conditions, infected grapes can produce a sweet concentrated wine known as botrytized wine. This fungal growth on the grapes is also known as the noble rot.

The extent of Greek mythology’s influence on scientific naming of some badass botany must have been quite the surprise! Interestingly, this influence lives on in modern life today – in science, arts, literature, language and brands.
Until next time, eat wisely and drink moderately.


Cheers!

Written by Lim Meng Hwee
Illustrations by Toh Bee Suan

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