Chinese fan palm, Livistona chinensis, at Lapohoehoe Pt, Hawaii. Plant names

Chinese fan palm, Livistona chinensis, at Lapohoehoe Pt, Hawaii. © Forest and Kim Starr and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Plant names – how do you find your way through the jungle? Well, plants are just like people: they have different names depending on who’s speaking.

They have their common name which people use in everyday speech – but this may vary from area to area so it can lead to confusion!

They also have their scientific name – mostly Latin but sometimes with a bit of Greek thrown in. This is useful if you want to pin down exactly which plant you’re talking about and, once you’ve started to crack the code, offers a handy hint about what the plant might be like or its origins.

Common plant names

Common names vary from place to place so plants often have several names. What’s columbine to me may be granny’s bonnet to you. What’s London pride in London is Lady’s pride (and also St Patrick’s cabbage) in Dublin. And is southernwood called lad’s love or boy’s love or something else entirely – old man, perhaps?

Plants are named for their looks – elephant ear (Bergenia) or the Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis), for example. They are also named for their qualities – the aspidistra is sometimes called the cast iron plant because of how it can withstand neglect.

Many plant names have a religious connection, strongly influenced by the very important gardens of mediaeval monasteries. Columbine has this name, for example, because the flower looks like five doves clustered together (columba is the Latin word for dove).

Aquilegia - also known as columbine and granny's bonnet. Plant names

Aquilegia - also known as columbine and granny's bonnet. © James Austin and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

As 25th March is Lady Day, when tenant farmers pay their annual rent, here are a few plants named after Mary, mother of Jesus, also known as Our Lady.

  • Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla)
  • Lady’s smock (the cuckoo flower, Cardamine pratense)
  • Lady’s slipper (the orchid Cypripedium calceolus)
  • Lady's tresses (the orchid Spiranthes spiralis)
  • Lady’s cushion or Lady’s pincushion (the sea thrift Armeria maritima)
  • marigold
  • Madonna lilies
  • rosemary

There were many more such plant names but the 16th century Protestant Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries put a stop to the veneration of Mary. Many names were changed, and girls’ names and others were substituted. Perhaps that’s how Lady’s pride (Saxifraga umbrosa) in Ireland is now generally called London pride the other side of the Irish Sea.

Saxifraga umbrosa, London or Lady's pride. Plant names

Saxifraga umbrosa, London or Lady's pride. © Jerzy Opioła and reused under http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html

How do scientific names fit together?

Carl Linnaeus, an 18th century naturalist, developed a classification system to identify each plant by using two names. Scientists have developed the system over the years and are continually refining it.

I've built on Alan Titchmarsh's outline to spell it out below. (Thanks, Alan!)

  1. Plants have their ‘surname’ first - so all roses are called Rosa and all periwinkles are called Vinca. That’s the genus.
  2. Then comes the ‘forename’ which tells you what species it is - Rosa rugosa or Vinca minor.
  3. Sometimes there’s a third name which tells you what colour it is, if the plant originates in the wild. It might be alba if it’s white or purpurea if it’s purple - Rosa rugosa alba or Vinca minor alba.

These names are all in italics.

  1. If the plant originates in cultivation then the third name is not in italics and has single inverted commas around it. For example, the shrub rose Rosa rugosa ‘Scabrosa’ or Vinca minor 'Bowles's Variety'.
  2. The name is simplified if it’s a very interbred plant and no-one is quite sure of its parents - just Rosa ‘Peace’ or Vinca 'Hidcote Purple', for example.

It needn’t be all Greek (or Latin) to you!

Greeks and Romans were pretty sensible when they named plants. They tended to describe a particular characteristic or use of a plant. Here are a few examples, along with the scientific name of some familiar plants.

  • Alba is Latin for white and minor means smaller. The pretty little white-flowered periwinkle has the scientific name Vinca minor alba.
  • Purpurea is Latin for purple. The purple-leaved copper beech has the scientific name Fagus sylvatica purpurea.
  • Pendula is Latin for hanging. The elegantly droopy silver birch is Betula pendula.
Silver birch, Conwy. Autumn rains. Plant names

Silver birch - Betula pendula, Conwy, October 2015. M K Stone

  • Floribunda means an abundance of flowers in Latin, a good name for the Floribunda roses which bear many flowers in large clusters and create a mass of colour.
  • Sempervirens is Latin for 'always green' so the evergreen common box has the scientific name Buxus sempervirens.
  • Sinensis is Latin for Chinese. You’ll probably know Camellia sinensis, the tea plant. There’s also the Chinese wisteria, Wisteria sinensis.
Wisteria at Grey's Court, near Henley, Oxfordshire. Plant names

Wisteria at Grey's Court, near Henley, Oxfordshire. © nick macneill and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I find plant names fascinating. Knowing them seems to help my gardening too!