University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
HOW FLOWERS GET THEIR NAMES
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
University of Vermont
Flowers, just like all other plants,
have both common and Latin names. While common names vary with
country, the Latin ones are universal worldwide. Common names,
also, can be confusing as with
coneflower. This could refer to either
of two very different plants, but using a latin name (Echinacea)
you won’t confuse this with the other coneflower (Rudbeckia).
names basically are composed of a genus name, followed by a species
then often cultivar or variety names). These Latin names aren't
perplexing and foreign if you know a bit about their origins.
names are descriptive. They may refer to color such as "xantho" or
yellow, "virens" or green, "nigra" or black, or
"alba" or white. You may see a word, too, such as "lac"
meaning milk and referring to white. The name for lettuce (Lactuca)
is named for the milky white sap.
words may be combined with plant parts such as "canthus" or spine,
not to be confused with "anthus" or flower. "Carpus" refers
to fruit and "rhizus" to root. Combined you might have
"xanthorhizus" or yellow root, “rubrifolia” or red leaves,
or white- flowered.
descriptors may refer to shape, such as "stella" for star; size,
as "macr" for long or big, "lept" for thin or slender;
number, such as "poly" for many; feel or texture, such as "lasi" for
wooly. So what does
"lasiocarpus" mean? How about "macranthus?" You're right--
wooly fruit and big spines.
it's even more fascinating when names refer to someone or something
about the plant. For annual flowers, did you know that petunia is
Brazilian "petun" or tobacco, to which this plant is related?
scientific name for annual geranium (Pelargonium)
is from the Greek "pelargos" for stork, referring to the beak of the
fruit. Yes, geraniums in nature do produce fruits or seeds although
see them in today's cultivars. Impatiens is the Latin for impatient,
to the violent seed discharge. Dianthus is one of those compound
words from the
Greek, meaning the flower (anthos) of the god Zeus (Di).
genus for flowering as well as smoking tobacco--is named after Jean
(1530-1600), the French ambassador to Lisbon who introduced tobacco
Begonia is named for Michel Bégon (1638-1710), a governor of French
patron of botany (which means he probably supported it financially
explorations). Zinnia is from Johann Gottfried Zinn (1727-1759), a
botany in Göttingen, Germany.
about the perennials? The genus for
Russian Sage (Perovskia) is named
after V.A. Perovski (1794-1857), a Russian general. Hosta (plantain
named for Nicholaus Tomas Host (1761-1834), physician to the Emperor
Austria. And Monarda (bee balm) is in honor of Nicolas Monardes
physician and botanist of Seville.
back even further in time is the peony (Paeonia)
in honor of Paeon, a Greek physician to the gods. Most of us studied
explorers Lewis and Clark in school and their expedition to the
Northwest. A small alpine plant not
hardy in this area (Lewisia) is named
there are the descriptive perennial names. Primula is a medieval
meaning "firstling of Spring." Astilbe is from the Greek
"a" (without), and "stilbe" (brightness), referring to the dull leaf
color of the species. The goldenrod
genus (Solidago) is from
"solido" meaning to make whole, alluding to its reputed healing
is Greek for "ending strife," hence our common name loosestrife.
Lythrum from the Greek "lythron" or blood refers to the flower
Lupinus from the Greek "lupus" or wolf refers to the erroneous
thought that this plant destroyed soil fertility.
(cultivated varieties) are often named for people and places. The
tall garden phlox ‘Shortwood’ is named
for the garden of author Stephanie Cohen in Pennsylvania, while the
cultivar ‘David’ is named for a person associated with the
Conservancy in Pennsylvania where this plant was found growing
wild. The perennial geranium ‘Rozanne’ is named for
the British person Rozanne Waterer in whose garden it was originally
found. More such origins can be found
online for some worthy perennials (perrysperennials.info under
Plants of the
are hundreds more scientific names too numerous to mention here, but
be found in Stearn's Dictionary of Plant
Names for Gardeners. This handy reference guide was written by
Stearn and published by Cassell Publishers, London. Look for it in
library or from used book sellers.