A Note on Deer Weed : The Danger of Common Names

Yerba del venado (Hierba de Venado, Yerba del ciervo)

One of the issues with the naming of plants becomes quite apparent when it comes to their common names. Several of the porophyllum species are called Deer Weed. This can cause a lot of confusion when it comes to deciding which is the appropriate herb to use, particularly when you are using the herb as a medicine. From a culinary standpoint there is no real issue as the flavour of the herbs in the porophyllum species are all very similar (although the strength of the flavour is somewhat variable). The following porophyllums (and likely others not listed) are called Deer weed.

  • P.gracile
  • P.lanceolatum
  • P.linaria
  • P.macrocephalum
  • P.obscurum
  • P.pausodynum
  • P.ruderale
  • P.scoparium
  • P.tagetoides

In addition there are other herbs also called Deer weed that are in no way related to porophyllums (except perhaps by geography)

Other herbs also known as Deer weed are,

Turnera diffusa – Damiana
Common Deer Weed – Acmispon glaber

Coastal Deer weed or California Broom – previously called Lotus scoparius
Hierba del Ciervo – Gomphrena pulchella                      
  Hierba del Venado –  Chrysactinia truncata                     

These are but a few of the herbs known as Deer weed. They share none of the same qualities as the porophyllum species. Although they may have some medicinal utility they are not used for the same reasons and even amongst the similarly named herbs there is even further cross over. For instance the herb T.diffusa (Damiana) is linked to C.truncata (Damianita – or little Damiana) through their common names. Damiana is a herb with known medicinal qualities while Damianita is a plant sometimes used as an ornamental flower. Both plants are of a different genus, Damiana is a Passifloraceae while Damianita is of the Compositae family.

One herb may have 10 common names or 10 different herbs may be known by the same common name. This just goes to demonstrate the vital importance of knowing exactly what the herb is before you use it. The Latin naming of herbs goes a long way to prevent any potentially fatal accidents from occurring when using plants internally.

Epazote is an example of when Latin nomenclature runs amok. Epazote, originally Chenopodium ambrosiodes is also known as Teloxys ambrosioides and, more recently Dysphania ambrosioides. These name changes are generally justified by the claim that each is botanically different plant and so requires a different name.

The naming of herbs is also very relevant when medicinal plants are adopted by a culture foreign to the traditional users of the plant. When adopted by another culture there are both potential positive and negative consequences that may arise. Other properties of the plant may be discovered (positive) or the plants attributes may be misused (negative) because they are poorly understood. The misuse of the plant may lead to that plant being restricted or banned in countries that don’t traditionally use the plant. This has happened in Australia with the herb Fallopia japonica and in the U.S of A with chaparral (Larrea tridentata). Both of these plants have been restricted because of their potential to cause quite extreme liver damage (in some cases requiring transplants). This is because the herb is over-used (more does not necessarily mean better). If the herb is traditionally taken as a tea then taking the powdered, encapsulated herb is likely to cause problems. Taking a herb in the wrong manner (ie. as a preventative rather than as an acute treatment) may also result in poisoning by accumulative and/or toxic concentrations. These issues can be avoided by referring to practitioners who are knowledgeable in the traditional uses of the plants.

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