Botanic Names: Made a Little Less Mysterious

Botanic or Latin names: love them or hate them, you can’t get away from them. But learning a few translations can make them a lot easier to remember, and may add to your understanding of the plants named. I love the way that once I can identify a new (to me) plant, I start seeing it all over. My level of knowledge definitely shapes what I see. My understanding of plant names has been greatly increased by searching for plant identifications in Flora of West Virginia by P. D. Strausbaugh and Earl L. Core, which translates each name as it describes a plant. There are other sources that translate as they go along, but this is the one I use most.

So I learn that the marsh marigold Caltha palustris is not named for its lustrous golden petals nor its lustrous green leaves. “Caltha” comes from “calathos” meaning cup and “palustris” means of swamps. Aha! So Quercus palustris, the pin oak, was named for its ability to grow in soggy places, Rosa palustris is the swamp rose and Lathyrus palustris is the marsh pea or vetchling. But swamp milkweed is Asclepius incarnata, the Latin name having nothing to do with swamps. “Incarnata” is related to “incarnation” but here it refers to color: the sad pink that suggested flesh-color to Linnaeus. Oh, well, everyone always says you can’t trust common names.

There are many names for habitats: arvense (of cultivated fields – many plants with this specific epithet come from Europe), pratens (of meadow), campestre (of fields), vineale (of vineyards), sylvatica or sylvestris (of woods), aquatica (water), riparia (river), montana (mountain), and mariana or maritima (sea) are a few.

Some examples of plants with these names are Trifolium arvense (field three-leaf: rabbitfoot clover), Anthemis arvensis (field chamomile: corn chamomile) & Equisetum arvense (field horsetail: common horsetail; but we also have a woodland horsetail: Equisetum sylvaticum); Phleum pratense (meadow reed: timothy), & Poa pratensis (meadow grass: Kentucky blue-grass), both non-native but everpresent; Lepidium campestre (field little-scale, for the fruit shape): field cress); Allium vineale (vineyard onion: field garlic); Nyssa sylvatica (woods tree named for a water nymph: tupelo, black gum), Rorippa sylvestris (wood cress: creeping yellow cress), & Pinus sylvestris (wood pine: Scotch pine); Nyssa aquatica (water-tupelo) & Carya aquatica (water hickory); Vitis riparia (river grape); Quercus montana (mountain oak: chestnut oak) & Oxalis montana (mountain sour plant: white wood sorrel); Prunus maritima (beach plum), & Agalinis maritima (salt marsh false foxglove).Botanic Names Made a Little Less Mysterious II–by Margaret Chatham (2003, revised 2014)

As I was picking saffron last fall (yes, you can easily grow your own saffron– don’t be discouraged by people who say that you get so little at a time: just look at the size packages that are sold in the grocery store, and the prices for those tiny quantities! Plant Crocus sativus and when it blooms in the fall, pull off the three-part red-gold stigma and let it dry to a thread and you’re in business!) it occurred to me that many plant names tell you where they come from.

I don’t just mean those that name the source of the first specimen. There are plenty of those, and their names are helpful:

Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells, named for German botanist Franz Karl Mertens, 1764-1831)

Claytonia virginica (spring beauty, named for John Clayton, 1693-1773, American botanist who lived in Virginia and sent the first samples to Gronovius for inclusion in Flora Virginica, 1739)

Saxifraga virginiensis (early saxifrage: rock-breaker from Virginia)

Carpinis caroliniana (American hornbeam: “Carpinus” is the classical Latin name for the family, and this is the one from Carolina)

Quercus marilandica (blackjack oak: oak of Maryland. “Quercus” is Latin for oak)

Fraxinus pennsylvanica (green ash. “Fraxinus” is the classical Latin name for the ash tree. Most plants named for Pennsylvania only use one “n” and some change the “y” to “i”.)

Vernonia noveboracensis (New York ironweed, named for English botanist William Vernon, d. 1711) New York also comes out as “novi-belgii” in Symphyotrichum novi-belgii.

Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (New England aster. Aster is Greek for star. Floridata says “The huge Aster genus was subdivided into several smaller genera and aromatic aster wound up in the tongue twister, Symphyotrichum. The name loosely translates as “hairs growing together”, a reference to the trichomes or hairs often present on the stems and leaves of many of the 90 species in the genus, or perhaps to the appearance of the flowerheads whose narrow (hair-like) rays all emanate from the same central location. Whatever.”)

Orobanche ludoviciana (Louisiana broomrape. From Greek orobos meaning vetch and anchein meaning to strangle.)

Maianthemum canadense (Canada mayflower)

Phytolacca americana (pokeweed: plant with lake (crimson) color)

Clintonia borealis (Yellow Clintonia: named for DeWitt Clinton, 1769-1828, governor of New York. “Borealis” means northern.)

Baptisia australis (false indigo: southern dye plant)

Lonicera japonica (Japanese honeysuckle, named for Adam Lonitzer, a 16th century German herbalist)

Prunus persica (peach: literally plum from Persia)

Myriophyllum brasiliense (Parrot’s feather, a water plant with “numberless leaves” from Brazil)

Galium anglicum (Lamarck’s bedstraw: milk-curdling plant from England)

Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon: mallow from Syria)

Salix babylonica (weeping willow: willow from Babylon)

Potentilla indica (Indian strawberry, medical powerhouse from India, formerly Duchesnea indica named for A. N. Duchesne, 1747-1827)

Belamcanda chinensis (blackberry lily: “belamcanda” is an East Indian name for the family, this one from China)

Thuja orientalis (arborvitae from the Orient, as opposed to Thuja occidentalis, western hemisphere, or native arborvitae)

Linaeus –and other taxonomists– made some mistakes, as in naming our common milkweed Asclepius syriaca under the impression that it came from Syria. (Asclepias for the god of medicine, Aesculapius.)

A host of other plants that originate in Europe bear names that don’t spell out their home range, but do hint at it. I started with Crocus sativus, which means the crocus that you plant, in Europe, where Linneaus recognized it as a cultivated variety. Some other “planted” plants are Medicago sativa (alfalfa), Raphanus sativus (radish), and Vicia sativa (spring vetch). Then there are the “officinale” plants: plants used by European apothecaries, like Taraxacum officinale (dandelion), and Althaea officinalis (marsh mallow). A third name that often (but not always) indicates European origin is “vulgare” meaning common. There are some named “vulgare” that are native here, but more often they were the plants that European taxonomists saw in their own yards and roadsides, like Cerastium vulgatum (mouse-ear chickweed), Artemesia vulgaris (mugwort), or Cirsium vulgare (bull thistle).

Margaret Chatham