Goats in a Name?

by Nancy Rose

October 12, 2016

nannyberry fruit

Goats in a Name?

goatleaf honeysuckle

Fragrant flowers of Italian woodbine, also known as goat-leaf honeysuckle (Lonicera caprifolium). Photo by Sten Bruner, Wikimedia.

Arboretum visitors and staff alike are quite enamored with the goats that have been diligently browsing overgrown areas in the Arboretum. The goats, rented from local business The Goatscaping Company, munch on vines and shrubs including non-native invasives like Oriental bittersweet [pdf] (Celastrus orbiculatus) and Japanese knotweed [pdf] (Polygonum cuspidatum) as well as weedy natives like poison ivy [pdf] (Toxicodendron radicans). We’ve enjoyed watching these personable caprines doing their beneficial, environmentally friendly work, so we were understandably upset when an off-leash dog got into the goats’ enclosure and attacked and injured two of the goats.

goats browse vines

Goats browse on weedy vines at the Arboretum. Photo by Andrew Gapinski

This may be the first time the Arboretum has hosted actual goats, but over the years we’ve had a number of plants with goat-related names in the Living Collections. The Latin root for “goat” is capr- and is seen in the specific epithets of several species. The best known one may be Salix caprea, which goes by the common name pussy willow (as do several other Salix species) or goat willow, a direct translation from its scientific name. Another is Lonicera caprifolium, Italian woodbine or goat-leaf honeysuckle, a twining woody vine. There seem to be two possible stories about this plant’s relationship to goats: one, that goats were especially fond of eating it, or two, that its ability to scramble up trees was reminiscent of goats’ ability to scramble up steep slopes.

The root capr– is also seen in Caprifoliaceae, the honeysuckle family, which is well represented at the Arboretum and includes accessions of Lonicera [pdf] (honeysuckle), Weigela [pdf], and Diervilla (bush honeysuckle), among others. Since Lonicera is this family’s type genus (the plants on which the family description is based), shouldn’t the family name be Loniceraceae, you ask? Well, Lonicera has a complicated taxonomic history and at the time the family was named, the genus name Caprifolium was used for many honeysuckles. Caprifoliaceae was retained as the family name even after Lonicera became the accepted genus for all honeysuckles.

nannyberry fruit

Fruits of nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) mature to deep blue and have a strong musky scent. Photo by Nancy Rose

And one final goat note. The viburnums (Viburnum) were long considered part of Caprifoliaceae but in recent years have been reassigned to the moschatel, or muskroot, family (Adoxaceae). Nonetheless, I have to mention Viburnum lentago here, because its common name is “nannyberry,” supposedly because its ripe fruits have a musky smell similar to goats. In fairness, female, or “nanny,” goats reportedly have little odor compared to male goats, so perhaps the common name should change to “buckberry” or “billyberry”!

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