Understanding The Meaning of Latin Plant Names Can Open Up a Whole World of Hidden Meaning and Beauty in the Garden
Important sounding, hard to pronounce and mysterious they might be, but there’s much more to Latin plant names than first meets the ear.
Plant names contain hidden messages that can tell us their many secrets. Where a plant comes from, the shape and colour of its leaves or stem, who first discovered it or when it flowers are just a few of the plant’s secrets revealed in its name.
There is a contradiction in so-called Latin plant names as many are not actually Latin. For example, the narcissus, or common daffodil, is named after Narcissus, the youth of Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection. Yarrow, a plant common on grass verges in Worcestershire, also has classical Greek pretensions and is named Achillea, after the warrior hero Achilles.
Latin is, however, the source of many plant names and there is a logic in its use. The naming system used for plants is the Linnaean nomenclature. Devised by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus it goes back to the 18th century. Linnaeus recognised the problems associated with flora and fauna having many local and national names and decided a system was needed to ensure common understanding across the world.
Take a very common plant, Digitalis purpurea, as an example, in Norwegian it is known as revbielde or foxbell; in German it is fingerhut or “thimble”; the French call it gant de notre dame; and the Welsh menyg-elloyllan or elves gloves. In Anglo Saxon, it was foxes glofa from which we get the word foxglove. You might know it as Witches’ Gloves, Dead Men’s Bells, Fairy’s Glove, Gloves of Our Lady, Bloody Fingers, Virgin’s Glove, Fairy Caps, Folk’s Glove or Fairy Thimbles depending where you were born. Digitalis purpurea is however recognised by gardeners and botanists worldwide and the need for a universal language is self-evident.
It is not all foreign names, dead languages and classical Greek. The names of some plants tell us about their more recent history. The Victorian age was one of plant hunters scouring the globe for new plants. The names of three great plant hunters come to mind; Pere David, Robert Fortune and Charles Maries.
As a missionary in China, Pere Armand David discovered numerous plants that were unknown to the gardeners of Western Europe. Several now bear his name, including Clematis armandii, Buddleia davidii and the rarer Davidia, which in English is variously called the pocket-handkerchief tree, dove tree or ghost tree.
One of Pere David’s discoveries has a local connection. Having discovered Acer davidii in Central China, when there as a missionary, it was left to a Warwickshire man to introduce it to Britain. Hampton Lucy born plant hunter Charles Maries introduced this species of “Snake-bark” maple to Britain in the 1800s.
Another local plant hunter, with many plants named after him, also lived just over the county border. “Chinese” Wilson was born in Chipping Campden, worked briefly at the Birmingham Botanic Garden, and later Kew, before introducing over 1000 garden-worthy plants from China to England. Many of these can now be seen at the Wilson Memorial Garden in Chipping Campden.
Robert Fortune was another plant hunter who travelled to China and we have him to thank for the hardy palm tree, Trachycarpus fortunei or Chusan palm. Fortune brought three specimens back with him in 1842, one still survives at Peckover House in Cambridgeshire where the cold Fen winds are a testament to its ability to survive temperatures of minus 15 centigrade or lower.
Women also feature amongst the plant names. The striking miniature blue iris, Iris danfordiae, is named after Mrs C.G. Danford and Ellen Willmott is remembered with several plants bearing the name willmottianus or willmottiae.
All these plants grow well in the typical garden and find our winters no problem; not so one of nature’s most regal plants. Native to the Cape Province and named after a Queen the bird of paradise or Strelitzia reginae is truly regal. Strelitzia reginae was first introduced into Britain in 1773 by Sir Joseph Banks, who was then the unofficial director of the Royal Gardens at Kew (as they were known at that time). He named the exoticlooking plant Strelitzia in honour of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III and Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who lived at Kew for many years.
Less regal, but equally as splendid, are the many plants found in the fields and woodlands. Their names describe their colour, habit, habitat, smell or appearance.
Anemone nemorosa is the wood anemone, which appears in mist-like white drifts in deciduous woodland in the spring. Nemorosa and nemoralis both mean “of woods” or groves.
Another Latin word, palustris, means marshy ground and rightly describes the habitat of Caltha palustris or marsh marigold with its bright yellow early spring flowers.
Far less attractive is the foetid smelling Iris foetidissima or stinking iris, which is found in woodlands and thickets on dry calcareous soils. The seed head is remarkable for its bright orange seed but the flowers live up to its foul name.
Despite the beauty of so many plant names a few suffer at the hand of the Linnaean system with names that are vulgare! Not a judgement on the plants choice of humour or dress, vulgare and vulgaris simply mean common. On this basis, the common Primula vulgaris is indeed common, but I always feel it deserves a better name. A firm favourite with so many, the primrose or prime rose, so named as it was the first “rose” to flower each year, is far from vulgar.
Why Do Latin Plant Names Sometimes Change?
It took me ages to learn some of the Latin plant names. And as soon as I learnt them someone said some names were wrong and gave then new ones.
In the video below Chris Metherall explains why Latin plant names sometimes change .
Writing Gardening, Horticultural, Marketing & PR Content
For those interested in how to write great marketing and PR articles to market an organisation the above article was published in 2008 as the first in a series of 72 pages in a couple of “glossy” magazines that fitted the reader profile of my clients target audience. The client, a college, wanted to recruit adult students to horticultural courses and, rather than write adverts, I decided to use more in-depth “value” articles, that evidenced my client’s field of expertise.
It was fortunate that I also have a horticultural background (I owned and ran a horticultural nursery for nine years) and was fluent in this type of content.
Vulgare when used as part of a Latin plant name simply means common.
Palustris, when used as part of a Latin plant name simply means marshy. The plant grows in marshy or wet places.
Purpurea, when used as part of a Latin plant name simply means purple. For example, the English foxglove is Digitalis purpurea
Digitalis, when used as part of a Latin Plant Name simply means “finger-like”. In German the plant is Fingerhut. It’s from digitalis that the drug digitoxin is named
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