Blog #40: Naming Names for Nature

October 14, 2021
Monika Weber-Fahr
Children, a newspaper article tells me this morning, know to recognize commercial firms’ logos better than plants or trees. Baffled, I am searching online for evidence for this claim, and indeed, research seems to indicate that pre-schoolers in the US can identify up to 100 brand logos; by age 10, they already know some 400. What about plants and trees? While I could not find anything online that would substantiate how many plants the average child can recognize, it does turn out that kids, at least in the UK, struggle naming not only fauna such as bumblebees and woodpeckers, but also flora such as oak trees or dandelionsl
Should we care? Well, for starters it seems that being able to recognize visual cues is probably a sign of the kids’ smartness, no matter whether commercial logos or nature’s beauties, so we should take a moment and be proud of all these smart little people. On the other hand, though, I do wonder what it means that our ability to recognize trees, flowers, or animals is declining - right at a time when so many are disappearing from the face of the earth.  Since John Stewart Mill, philosophers have reflected on the meaning of names, and to what degree having a name for something would allows us to interact with it. Many of us may remember how Smilla, a character in Smilla’s Sense of Snow, observes that the Inuits she grew up amongst had many many more names for snow than her other native language, Danish, and how she worried that she might loose the connection with her environment when forgetting the language (or vice versa, I can’t remember). As it were, the number of names for snow in Inuit languages appears to be a hotly debated topic. Yet, there seems to be some truth here: Whatever is part of your daily experience will be something you have (many) names for, perhaps even various and nuanced ones.


Picture: Do you know the name of this tree - or the plants right in front?  They should be household names - but if you don’t know, see whether you can find them in the Botanical Garden around the corner and send them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

And its true: Our planet is losing species at a rate of between 24 to 150 per day, every day, at least that’s what the researchers are telling us. The numbers are based on computer modeling and on the fact that that there are some 1.9 million recorded current or recent species on the planet.  Losing 150 a day - or some 50,000 a year - clearly seems alarming and is on the global political agenda. Even here in Austria, we see many plants and animals on the “red list” of endangered species. Right now, between October 11 and 15, the first part of the UN Biodiversity Conference - taking place online rather than in Kunming in China as originally planned - is seeking to remedy what a report launched in May this year had confirmed: That despite unprecedented species extinction todate, its not too late to make a difference - if we start now at every level, from local to global.
Right around the corner from Christ Church, we have our very own bastion of defense in the battle against species extinction: The Botanical Garden. The garden is not only a beautiful location for a walk and positive inspirations - it’s also part of the University of Vienna’s faculty of LIfe Science, home to 11,500 plant species from six continents, and a place where cutting edge research and a lot of public education happens. Last week, Frank, one of Rose’s colleagues, gave us a tour and we took time out of our busy week(end) to learn, breathe and even take a moment for prayer. Gabe had selected St. Francis’ Canticle of Brother Son and E.E. Cummings’ most amazing day for inspiration, and thus accompanied by good thoughts and fellowship we learned about the University’s work in bringing together, sustaining and learning from plants from all over the world. We found out about Maria Theresia who had the gardens set up in the 1750s, for the education of medical doctors; we found out about interesting research projects - such as the work in creating a planetary inventory of life, in understanding the impacts of climate change, and in cultivating endangered species; and mostly we learned about beautiful and sometimes odd plants. My personal favorite: Zanthoxylum simulans, Chinese-pepper or Täuschende Stachelesche: It produces little fruits with a positively wild taste.

Foto: Zanthoxylum Simulans - a tree from China - produces a little fruit that tastes indeed very very wildly.Do check out whether you can find it when you visit!

Which gets us back to names: At the Botanical Garden you will find plants that you think you know - and then you don’t - and then there are plants that you had no clue existed. All of them have names, and oddly enough pretty much all seem to have both Latin and German names, in addition to the names presumably given in their home countries but perhaps not recorded here. It’s wild! If you want to learn a few more names of species you did or did not know - check out the Botanical Garden. In fact, do it in the next weeks, throughout October. They have a fun exhibition going - the “New Wild Ones” - until October 31st; check-out the website, I think it requires registration and a small fee. Do go and find new names for nature’s treasures!

Foto: The exhibition on traveling plants is still on - throughout the end of October - go check it out!!

Inspired? Thoughts or reactions? Or ideas for forthcoming blogs?  We look forward to hearing from you - best via email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..