Plant Names – Knowing Them Clears Confusion

Have you ever been curious about plant names? Perhaps wondered who named the plants and why a certain plant was given that particular name?

Common names were first used. These were preserved through folklore. The same plant might be given several names in one country, and an entirely different name, or names, in another country having another language. In time, some of the plants had many names in many languages. One can well understand the grand mix-up that followed such haphazard methods.

One dictionary of plant names states that a single species of European waterlily had been given 245 common names… 15 in the English language, 44 French, 81 Dutch, and 105 German. To add to the confusion different plants were given the same name. Many a plant whether it has lavender, blue, or purple flowers, and has even the remotest resemblance to a bell has been dubbed “bluebell.” Common names can be very confusing.

physostegia obedient plant

One spring in my early gardening days, I obtained a physostegia. A few weeks later a friend asked if I had false dragonhead. When I answered in the negative, she gave me one.

About the same time a neighbor brought me a start of lady of the lake saying she knew I would like it. As they grew they looked suspiciously alike. When the blossoms appeared, there was no doubt, all three were physostegia.

Had anyone offered me accommodation plant, obedient plant, or lion’s heart, I would have accepted each one for I did not know at that time that these names, too, are common names for physostegia.

The Two Name System

Botanists long ago decided something must be done to avoid such confusion. As early as the 4th century, B.C., Theophrastus, the Greek philosopher, made an attempt to give his plants botanical names. He had fallen heir to a garden and spent much of his spare time building up a fine collection of plants.

Other botanists continued the work, giving names to their native plants; but the names were often long, there was no system, no one rule which everyone followed. They did decide to use Latin, the universal language of scholars, so the names could be understood in any part of the world.

In 1707 Carolus Linnaeus was born in Sweden. His father taught the lad the names of hundreds of plants. He became a professor of botany and inspired his pupils with his own love of nature. His greatest contribution to botany, however, was his simplified method of classifying and naming plants.

Instead of lengthy descriptive names used by earlier botanists, Linnaeus used only two words in the botanical name of each plant.

Although his systems of plant naming and classification are not followed today, he laid the foundation and paved the way for the binominal system of nomenclature.

By this system each plant is given two Latin names. We write the genus name first. Think of this generic name as corresponding to your surname. The second, the species name, core responds with your given name. It’s just as simple as that.

Botanists tried to make all names Latin, but actually they come from many languages. Chrysanthemum is Greek, Ginkgo is Japanese, Sequoia is American Indian.

Plants were and are often named to honor notable people. The lovely magnolia trees that bloom early in spring were given the genus name Magnolia to honor a splendid French botanist, Pierre Magnol.

Three brothers, Dutch botanists by the name of Commelyn (also spelled Commelin), were the inspiration for the naming of Commelina by Linnaeus. Two of the brothers were active and industrious, but the third was lazy and never accomplished anything.

When the merry hearted Linnaeus noted the three-petaled flowers of this group of plants, he was reminded of the three brothers for two of the petals were showy but the third was inconspicuous.

Named After Discoverers

Many plants are named for the men who discovered them. Begonia is named for Michel Begon, a French 17th century promoter of botany. Forsythia for William Forsyth, director of the Royal Gardens near London.

Clarkia is named for the American explorer William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. The genus name may tell something about the plant or be descriptive as Gypsophila meaning gypsum loving, and Penstemon meaning five stamens.

The second name is for the species. It may refer to the place where the plant was first found. We have such specific names as americana (America), canadensis (Canada), virginiana (Virginia), and formosanum (Formosal.

Again they may be descriptive names as latifolia meaning broadleaved, and repens, creeping, or tuberous, having swollen underground stems or tubers. Still others, like genus names, are given names of men. Van houttei is for Louis van Houtte, a famous Belgian nurseryman; Fortunei for an explorer, Robert Fortune.

Occasionally a variety name is added such as Mertensia virginica var. alba, or it may simply be written Mertensia virginica alba. The genus name is Mertensia and was given to honor a German botanist, F. C. Mertens, The species name virginica implies that the plant was first found in Virginia.

The variety name alba tells us the plant has a white blossom. Another example is Alyssum saxatile var. flora-pleno. The genus name Alyssum is a Greek plant name. The species name saxatile means growing among rocks, and the variety name flora-pleno means double flowered.

Without Confusion

Gardening is much more interesting when one knows the significance of the plant names. If you do not have a plant dictionary at hand, you will find some information of this kind in Webster’s dictionary.

One evening a friend and I were talking along the garden paths. Her son, a boy of seven or eight years, tagged along quietly. She had asked the names of several plants of which I knew only the botanical names.

One she asked about was a lily I had grown from seeds labeled Lilium philippinense formosanum. The scientific names amused my friend. There was laughter in her voice as she pointed next to a row of potatoes nearby and asked, “And what are those?”

“Solanums,” I answered, playing the game with her. “Solanum tuberosum,” and jestingly elaborated on what valuable plants they were. Her son walked over to the potato plants, touched the leaves gently, almost with awe, and with a voice filled with wonder and respect said, very slowly, “I thought these were ’taters!”

Scientific names, of course, are not used to amuse people (except, perhaps on such occasions!) but rather that plants may be discussed anywhere in the world without confusion. When Mertensia virginica is mentioned, there can be no doubt which plant is meant.

If its common name “bluebell” is used, there is no way of knowing whether one is referring to a campanula, a scilla, a phacelia or some other plant. It is awkward, also, to talk about plants if the only names one knows are “that yellow daisy-like thing,” or “my white lily by the walk,” “the big tree in the corner,” or “that blue flower you gave me.”

It is highly desirable that gardeners learn botanical names of plants and be able to use them when occasion demands, as well as to know the common names.

Not many of us have orchids among our house plants or in our shaded borders, but I’ll venture the guess that almost every pantry shelf in America holds a product in which a certain species of orchid has contributed its seed pods. Do you know which orchid it is?

If you do not have this product on your shelves, I’ll venture another guess… that you make frequent trips to the bakery! There! I almost told!

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