Having talked about families of birds briefly in my last post I thought a more thorough look into the topic could be beneficial here. All lifeforms on Earth have been categorised using a special system, aside from giving biology students something to study for tests, this system also makes it easier for us to recognise what type of plant or animal we're looking at.
Things are categorised using a binomial system where the organism is named using 2 Latin names. These are usually italicised and the first written with a capital letter and the 2nd with lower case. The first name tells you the family and the second the species. A good example is the carrion crow, Corvus corone. Above the family comes the order. This is the big group of animals with similar physiology. For example all rodents come together, as do whales and dolphins, as do carnivores. For those of you with an interest in linguistics or Latin the names do have a meaning. Sometimes it is rather dull, with Corvus simply being Latin for Raven whereas sometimes the name is more descriptive with willows being known as Salix sp. which is derived from the word "to jump" which is used to describe the ease with which shoots and cuttings of the plant will take root.
Botany in a Day
This system of plant families is very useful when recognising plant types and it is this system of teaching familial characteristics which forms the basis of Thomas Elpel's "Botany in a Day". This an excellent book which I thoroughly recommend and is a text featured on Jack Mountain Bushcraft's reading list. It is an accessible yet detailed book and free from the personal comments that put some off his other books. If you are in any way interested in knowing the names of plants, recognising those with medicinal, culinary or other uses I cannot think of a better learning framework to recommend.
Knowing plant families is very useful if you are looking for wild edibles. Some families such as Viola, tend to be edible whilst others such as the Umbelliferae are a mixed bag with some valuable food plants and some being very dangerous. The same applies in the world of Fungi with Boletus being a good family to be able to identify as it contains many edible varieties and few dangerous ones. The converse is true of the Amanita family which contains most of the most dangerous fungi, it's therefore important to know the features of this family so knowing how to avoid them.
Different classes of animals also produce different types of prints and tracks. Different groups of animals move in different ways, such as plantigrade animals which place all 5 toes on the ground when walking. having an awareness of the classification system also helps when searching for animals based on their habits. By knowing the habitat, mode of locomotion and other details it makes it possible to find the family and aid identification.It was through this process that I was able to identify Nuthatches recently - by looking at shape, habitat and feeding habits I was able to gradually narrow the search down.
The everyday name of plants does give you some important information, particularly about past uses. An example often given in books is the Dandelion. The name is thought to describe the leaves being "dente de lion" describing the lion tooth shape of the leaves. The modern name the French use is "pissenlit" literally meaning wet the bed, hinting at the plant's diuretic properties. In Polish, the common name I've been introduced to is "Mlecz" being derived from the word for milk (mleko) and referring to the milky white latex sap of the plant. Sometimes the Latin name is a fairly direct translation of the English name (or vice versa) as in the case of Shepherd's Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris. The literal meaning would be; little box, purse-shepherd's. Understanding both names can also serve as a mnemonic to aid learning and recognising plants and animals. The odd name is of course, completely silly. This seems particularly common when dealing with dinosaurs - I guess the heat and dust do something to the brain when involved in the naming process. Dracorex hogwartsia is my case in point here!
As you can see a little knowledge of this system will enable you to develop and use other skills more effectively. As with so many things in Bushcraft, it is a combination of skills and knowledge from various sources that helps you get the end result. For me this is an especially important skill as the system is international. I have books in different languages and from descriptions it can be hard to make sure you have the exact equivalent common names. Although common names give you some important cultural information the Latin name is the international key that enables you to check. It can also be useful when the same common name is used for more than one plant.