Botanic Names: They’re A Real Zoo!

A wide variety of animals find their way into the botanic names of familiar plants, sometimes because of a similar shape or appearance, sometimes because of the way the plants were used. Some of these are echoed in the plants’ common names, others aren’t.

So Elephantopus really is from the Greek for “Elephant’s Foot” (some tropical species have very large leaves), Chenopodium really means “Goosefoot” in Greek and Chelone for the genus of Turtleheads is derived from the Greek for “tortoise.” Geranium comes from the Greek geranos meaning “crane,” and many geraniums are commonly called “Cranesbills” for their long, pointed seedpods. Equisetum comes from Latin equus (horse) and seta (bristle), close enough to “Horsetail.” “Adder’s Tongue” fern is a good translation of Ophioglossum: Greek ophis (serpent) glossa (tongue) – for the shape of its fertile frond? And the specific epithet of Matteuccia struthiopteris does indeed translate from the Greek to “Ostrich Fern.” Coreopsis species are sometimes called “Tickseeds” and the genus name translates that way: Greek coris (bug) and opsis (appearing), for the shape of the seeds. Hieracium, the genus of Hawkweed, comes from the Greek hierax (hawk), because some European species was used in ancient times to improve eyesight.

But sometimes the common and botanic names don’t match. “Columbine” comes from the Latin for dove, while its genus name Aquilegia comes from Latin for eagle. I don’t see an eagle’s talons in its spurred flowers myself, but someone did. Where we see softly furry Pussytoes, the botanic name Antennaria sees insect antennae in its pappus (modified calyx pieces at the top of the seed in composites). Echium vulgare is Viper’s Bugloss: Greek echis (viper) for its nutlets shaped like viper’s heads, but “Bugloss” is itself from Greek bous (ox) and glossa (tongue) for the shape of the leaves. Larkspurs are in the genus Delphinium, named for dolphins.

Then there are botanic names whose animal connections have no echo in their common names. Forget-me-not is Myosotis scorpioides: Greek myos (mouse) otis (ear) and the inflorescence unfurls like a scorpion’s tail. Ipomoea for the genus of Morning Glories also comes from Greek: ips (worm) and homoios (resembling) for its twining habit. Buttercups’ genus of Ranunculus comes from the Latin for “little frog” because many of them grow in wet places.