Common names that are also descriptions

Dinner Friday with Amanda Walker at Three Seasons (fusion Vietnamese), with wonderful plants (especially orchids) and cut flowers all over the place. Which moved Amanda to ask me (as a plant person) about a flowering shrub used in plantings on the Google campus: “It looks like a bottle-brush”, she said. “Oh, that would be a bottle-brush plant”, I replied. She stared at me for a moment, until she realized I was not just repeating her description, but was in fact offering a common name. She searched for it under that name on her iPhone, and was immediately rewarded with a photo of a Callistemon in flower, along the lines of this bottlebrush, the Callistemon citrinus variety ‘Spendens’:


The probkem is that the common name for the plant is also a pretty good brief description of it, so there’s room for uncertainty as to whether you’re being offered a name or a description.

The problem arises especially with people who aren’t well-acquainted with the culture the common names come from: tourists and recent immigrants. In at least two cases in my experience (both involving birds rather than plants) some confusion has arisen for such speakers, who were inclined to see what was offered as a name as instead a puzzling repeat of a description they had just given.

I’ll get back to bottle-brushes (or bottlebrushes) in a little while, but first a note on red-headed woodpeckers and red-winged blackbirds.

The routine goes like this: the tourist or recent immigrant asks for information: “What do you call that red-headed woodpecker / red-winged blackbird?” And is told: red-headed woodpecker / red-winged blackbird. But of course they can’t hear a distinction between use and mention, so they say something like, “Yes, that’s what it looks like, but what is it called?” And then you have to explain that red-headed woodpecker / red-winged blackbird is in fact the common name for the bird.

The red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is a small or medium-sized woodpecker from temperate North America (Wikipedia link)


The red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is a passerine bird of the family Icteridae found in most of North and much of Central America. (Wikipedia link)


Back to the bottlebrushes. There’s a 2/9/14 posting on this blog on “callistemon”, but there’s more in the Wikipedia article, where we learn that the name is accented on the penult, which has the tense vowel /i/, and that there’s some dispute on whether Callistemon species should be included instead in the genus Melaleuca (more on Melaleuca in a moment). And:

Callistemon species have commonly been referred to as bottlebrushes because of their cylindrical, brush like flowers resembling a traditional bottle brush. They are mostly found in the more temperate regions of Australia, especially along the east coast and typically favour moist conditions so when planted in gardens thrive on regular watering. However, two species are found in Tasmania and several others in the south-west of Western Australia. At least some species are drought-resistant and some are used in ornamental landscaping elsewhere in the world.

They come mostly in shades of red, but also white, yellow, orange, and pink.

Then from Wikipedia:

Melaleuca … is a genus of nearly 300 species of plants in the myrtle family, Myrtaceae, commonly known as paperbarks, honey-myrtles or tea-trees (although the last name is also applied to species of Leptospermum). They range in size from small shrubs that rarely grow to more than 1 m (3 ft) high, to trees up to 35 m (100 ft). Their flowers generally occur in groups, forming a “head” or “spike” resembling a brush used for cleaning bottles, containing up to 80 individual flowers.

… Many are popular garden plants, either for their attractive flowers or as dense screens and a few have economic value for producing fencing and oils such as “tea tree” oil.

Melaleuca lanceolata (melaleucas come in many colors; this one is white):


Melaleuca quinquenervia was introduced to U.S. in the early 1900s as an ornamental and for erosion control. It’s now classed as invasive.

3 Responses to “Common names that are also descriptions”

  1. Gary Says:

    I grow yellow blue-eyed grass (sisyrhinchium californicum) on my roof here in NYC.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Ann Burlingham on Facebook:

    Did I tell you about my “Tasty Cheese” confusion in Australia? Just as you describe – I asked, anent a menu description, “What’s tasty cheese?” “It’s tasty cheese!” chorused the Aussies. A few rounds, and I find that the name of it is [called!] tasty cheese. It’s a kind of cheddar, but they couldn’t swear to that. It’s TASTY CHEESE.

    Wikipedia tells us that:

    Cheddar is so ubiquitous [in Australia] that the name is rarely used: instead, Cheddar is sold by strength alone as e.g. “mild”, “tasty” or “sharp”.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: