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Desert Diary


Names are funny things and often make or break a product. An advertiser's PR people may spend thousands of dollars trying out different names with focus groups, hoping to find one that will cause people to flock to their merchandise. It should come as no surprise, then, that our mental image of natural things may depend strongly on their names.

A plant with the scientific name of Rhus aromatica is an example. "Aromatica" means having an aroma. This shrub of the sumac family is widespread, and a guide in eastern Texas might point it out to you, giving the common name as Fragrant Sumac. What a lovely name, evoking thoughts of incense or delicate perfume.

Whoa, now, let's hold on a minute! Get over into our desert region, you're more apt to hear it called Skunkbush. Same species, different variety. But I think you'll agree, even though this name conjures up a picture quite different from that of Fragrant Sumac, both are faithful to the concept of having an aroma. Be careful what you name things.
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Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.