Botanic Names: It’s About Time

Some plants’ botanic names note activity at an unexpected time. So our Black Cherries that bloom and fruit later than cultivated cherries are named Prunus serotina (Prunus: Latin for plum; serotina: late) while the early-blooming Shooting Star is Primula meadia (prim: first, meadia: in honor of English physician Richard Mead, 1673-1754, formerly in the genus Dodecatheon, which means twelve gods, who were supposed to have primroses in their care.)

Winter: The pleated leaves of Puttyroot, Aplectrum hyemale are visible on the forest floor all winter long (A: without; plectrum: spurs on the flowers; hyemale: of winter), though the flowers don’t appear until late May, when the leaves are dying back for the summer. Ticklegrass or Winter Bentgrass, Agrostis hyemalis, is also green in the winter, blooms in the spring and goes dormant during summer heat. (Agrostis: Greek name of some grass, from agro: field.)

Spring: We expect plants to grow and bloom in the spring, but “verna” as a specific epithet usually means that the plant gets going especially early. So the European Draba verna, Whitlow-grass, is sometimes called a winter annual, blooming in February-March. (Draba: acrid, ancient name of some cress.) The Early Winter-cress (also from Europe), Barbarea verna, can bloom in February. (Barbarea: herb of St. Barbara) We’re all too familiar with the very invasive exotic Lesser Celandine, Ficaria verna, that starts blooming in March. (Ficaria: fig, for the tuberous roots.) Yes, there are some native plants named “verna” as well: Iris verna, Dwarf Coastal Plain Iris (Iris: Greek rainbow, though most of ours are blue or purple); Myosotis verna, Early Forget-me-not (myos: mouse; otis: ear, for the short, soft leaves of some species); Spring Avens, Geum vernum, lost its position as the earliest-blooming Geum species when Barren Strawberry, formerly Waldsteinia fragarioides, was renamed Geum fragarioides (Geum: ancient name of some plant; fragarioides: like fragaria, the strawberry). Then there are Spring Ladies-tresses, Spiranthes vernalis, (Spir: spirally twisting, anthes: flowers; most Spiranthes species bloom late in the summer) and Blue-eyed Mary, Collinsia verna, from Virginia’s southern mountains (Collinsia: for Philadelphia botanist Zaccheus Collins, 1764-1831.)

Summer: here the specific epithet is “aestivalis.” Summer Grape, Vitis aestivalis, fruits in September-October, like most of our other grapes. Summer Sedge, Carex aestivalis, blooms when summer comes to its mountain heights: in May-June according to Flora of Virginia, or maybe June-August as Flora of West Virginia says.

Autumn: The only familiar native plant with autumn in its botanic name is Common or Yellow Sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale (Helenium for Helen of Troy). It is the last of its genus to bloom. Explore farther, and you find Slender Fimbry, Fimbristylis autumnalis, an annual sedge that also has the latest bloom time of its genus (Fimbri: fringed; stylis: style: hand lens at least needed here!), and Slender Rattlesnake-root Nabalus autumnalis blooming September-November in the Coastal Plain, mostly south of the James River (Nabalus: possibly related to a Phoenician harp, nablium in Latin? I need someone to explain the connection to me. Formerly Prenanthes: Greek prenes: drooping; anthe: flower: now, drooping flowers I can see.)

Other, more particular times get some mention: *Yellow Star Thistle is Centaurea solstitialis (associated with Chiron, the centaur, and the summer solstice). *Dame’s Rocket is Hesperis matrionalis (mother of evening, for its fragrance that is released then; Hesperus was the west wind.) *Night-flowering Catchfly is Silene noctiflora (Silene being a mythical character covered in foam, referring to the mucus that catches flies.) And Nyctelea or Waterpod is Ellisia nyctelea (Ellisia in honor of English naturalist John Ellis, 1710-1776, nyctelea: nocturnal.)

Margaret Chatham