Botanic Names: They’re All Greek to Me

Well, not all, but while we often speak of botanic names as “Latin names,” they are derived from many sources, and  Greek is well-represented. So for example Twinleaf is Jeffersonia diphylla, for Jefferson’s plant with two (di) leaves (phylla) – Latin would have been something like “bifolia.” Or Mayapple is Podophyllum peltatum for foot (podos) leaf (phyllon) shaped like a small shield (pelte). Latin uses the same pelta for shield, but the genus name in Latin would have come out closer to “pefolium.”

Yellowroot is Xanthorhiza simplicissima (simplicissima is Latin for simplest, meaning unbranched: I always wondered what was so simple about this very frilly-leaved plant). Latin for “yellow” is lutea, as in Passiflora lutea, passionflower with yellow blossoms, and Latin for “root” is “radic-“ as in radish, eradicate or Toxicodendron radicans: poison tree (from Greek by way of Latin) with rootlets: poison ivy.

Of course, the Greek alphabet doesn’t correspond perfectly with the Latin-based alphabet we use. So that same “yellow” that was “xantho” in yellowroot is rendered “zantho” in prickly ash’s botanic name of Zanthoxylem americanum: yellow-wood from America.

And think back to the Greek letter “chi” when pronouncing Chionanthus virginica, fringetree: snow (chion) flower (anthos) from Virginia, or Chrysopsis mariana, Maryland golden-aster: gold (chrys) appearing (opsis) from Maryland. Sometimes that confusing “h” disappears, and you get names like “Calycanthus” meaning cup (calyx: think chalice) flower. Rearrange some of these pieces, and you see that “Chrysanthemum” comes from Greek for golden flower and “Helianthus” is indeed sunflower. “Hydrophyllum” is waterleaf, while “Rhododendron” means rose-tree, and “Liriodendron” means tulip (or lily) tree.

No, learning to translate Greek-derived botanic names won’t get you very far if you visit Greece, but perhaps you can feel a little more comfortable with some of those dreaded “Latin names”.

Margaret Chatham