Naming nature as an innovative way to identify and remember their official and complex scientific names. (Photo by USFWS)

Naming nature as an innovative way to identify and remember their official and complex scientific names. (Photo by USFWS)

Refuge Notebook: Nature’s nametags

  • By MATT CONNOR Refuge Notebook
  • Thursday, March 2, 2023 8:45pm
  • Sports

I was tasked last week with purchasing some vitamins. My wife informed me that vitamin D is a necessary supplement, and low levels can create mood swings and other negative side effects.

I started to feel targeted and almost said, “What’s that supposed to mean?” and decided to stick to the task at hand versus proving her point.

Walking down the supplement aisle seemed a bit overwhelming, and I had no clue there were so many products, indications and applications for a kaleidoscope of possibilities. Luckily, my task was simple as I had to only look alphabetically for the “D” and find what I needed.

Now I had to decide on milligrams, capsule type, gummies, quantity and brand name. As I was scanning the “Ds” I went a bit too far and found myself in the “E’s,” and before I realized I had strayed from my simple task, I saw a familiar name, “elderberry.”

As soon as I saw the name, I said out loud, “Sambucus canadensis.” I got a couple of startled looks and gave an apologetic shrug to a slightly startled shopper and tried to explain, “Oh, that is one of the Latin names I still remember from school for elderberry.”

The other shopper seemed less than impressed and suddenly realized they were in the wrong aisle and needed to go somewhere else.

The reason I recall that name with a surge of excitement was years ago, I was a teaching assistant at Southern Illinois University, and I was tasked with teaching dendrology (a fancy word for name that tree) to forestry majors. We taught and tested students on a variety of plant life, from trees to shrubs, and students were required to test weekly on random flora, and their written responses had to include the correct common name, Latin name and proper spelling for each species.

Most students were freshmen and learning and memorizing a semester’s worth of species was daunting. I became known for developing tips and tricks to help the students remember the plant’s common name and the Latin names. Elderberry was one of my favorite made-up stories I would share with my class.

Elderberry is a shrub with small dark berries and red raised bumps on the twigs and limbs. So, the story went as follows:

“There once was a boy named Sambucus. Sambucus had an elder father with red bumps on his arms from chicken pox when he was younger. His elder father loved berries and would send Sambucus to pick berries in a can, and the berries were so small the can was dense with fruit when it was brought back.

“Elderberry, Sambucus picked a canadensis of berries.”

Once the students learned this story, they found the common name, description and Latin name was in the story title. Some students really enjoyed this technique, and others found it less useful.

I was determined to try different teaching techniques as I enjoyed teaching the class and spending several hours a week walking through the campus woods with students talking about plants.

One day I started to share another “plant pontification,” and I caught a student rolling her eyes. I decided to try something completely different and needed their absolute trust. We didn’t take a vote, and since I was the teacher, I told them we were all in agreement. I saw another eye roll, but that did not detour me.

We approached a new plant, and as we stood next to it, I said, “Does it ever occur to you that when this plant first existed in the current form it is in now, it didn’t have a name? Someone identified, studied, cataloged and later named it. But it existed long before humans named it. So today, we are going to learn to see species versus memorizing the name someone else gave it.”

I instructed the students to study the plant. What are some clues you can learn about this species that make it different from the others? How many leaves does it have? Are the petals alternate or opposite coming off the main stem? Is the bark smooth, spotted, or bumped?

After we answered these questions and made our own observations, then, and only then, did we give it a name. But, in this case, we made the name up for the rest of the day. I asked, now that we truly know this plant, who would like to give it a name?

The group picked the name Albert.

“Not what I was thinking, but I guess this plant could pass for an Albert,” I said.

As we began to walk away, the group asked me, “What is it really called?” I responded, “First, let’s walk through the forest and see how many ‘Alberts’ we can find.”

We found several! At the end of the class, we had found and named seven other new “forest friends,” each with a unique name. The class was ending, and I asked them to write down all the names we had created, and then I finally gave them the scientific names.

The following week when we tested the students on these species, it was the highest level of identification accuracy I had ever seen from my students. I was concerned they might have trouble remembering the “real” name, but that was not the case. All could identify the correct plant, use the associations they created and assign the proper scientific name. We learned that day that knowing a thing is far more powerful than memorizing one.

To this day, when I’m hiking, fishing or skiing, I challenge myself to learn at least one new nature discovery. I can do this without having to use an identification app on my phone or carrying multiple field guides. I use this technique for all species of animals, plants and insects.

All I carry on most outings is a pencil and a scrap of paper. I observe the species, sketch it, label characteristics and, of course, name it. I practice noticing this specific species and picking it out of the crowd, and days and maybe even several weeks later, I will look up the species and see what other name my discovery goes by.

It is a wonderful way to increase my outdoor knowledge without feeling bound to study and field guides when my ultimate goal is to spend some time outdoors while increasing my understanding and appreciation of the world I live in.

Matt Connor is the Visitor Service Manager at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information on the Refuge at or Look for Refuge Notebook Articles on the first and third Fridays of each month or Find past Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at

More in Sports

Ninilchik fans celebrate the team's second straight Class 2A boys state basketball championship Saturday, March 18, 2023, at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Robin Moore)
Ninilchik boys win 2nd straight Class 2A state title

The Ninilchik boys basketball team defended their Class 2A state title with… Continue reading

CIA girls take 5th place at Class 1A state tournament

The Cook Inlet Academy girls basketball team took fifth place in the… Continue reading

Ninilchik boys advance to title game; CIA girls, boys lose

The Ninilchik boys moved to the championship game of the Class 2A… Continue reading

Ninilchik boys, CIA girls move to state semis; CIA boys upset on a last-second shot

The Ninilchik boys moved to the semifinals of the Class 2A state… Continue reading

The Engineer Lake Public Use Cabin, a favorite cabin to enjoy on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by USFWS/Dan Saxton)
Refuge Notebook: A winter’s night among the stars, wolves of the refuge

“Did you hear that?” I said to my wife and our young… Continue reading

Ninilchik boys ready to defend state title

Even with just 27 students in the high school, the Ninilchik basketball… Continue reading

CIA girls, boys win at state’s first round

The Cook Inlet Academy girls and boys basketball teams both won their… Continue reading

CIA girls, boys ready for state

The Cook Inlet Academy girls and boys basketball teams open up play… Continue reading

Most Read