University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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HOW FLOWERS GET THEIR NAMES
 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
 
Flowers, just like all other plants, have both common and Latin names. While common names vary with region and 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).  
           
Scientific names basically are composed of a genus name, followed by a species name (and then often cultivar or variety names). These Latin names aren't nearly so perplexing and foreign if you know a bit about their origins.
           
Many 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.
           
Color 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, “lactiflorus” or white- flowered.
           
Other descriptors may refer to shape, such as "stella" for star; size, such 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.
           
To me it's even more fascinating when names refer to someone or something interesting about the plant. For annual flowers, did you know that petunia is from the Brazilian "petun" or tobacco, to which this plant is related?
           
The 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 we seldom see them in today's cultivars. Impatiens is the Latin for impatient, referring to the violent seed discharge. Dianthus is one of those compound words from the Greek, meaning the flower (anthos) of the god Zeus (Di).
           
Nicotiana--the genus for flowering as well as smoking tobacco--is named after Jean Nicot (1530-1600), the French ambassador to Lisbon who introduced tobacco to France. Begonia is named for Michel Bégon (1638-1710), a governor of French Canada and patron of botany (which means he probably supported it financially with plant explorations). Zinnia is from Johann Gottfried Zinn (1727-1759), a professor of botany in Göttingen, Germany.
           
What about the perennials?  The genus for Russian Sage (Perovskia) is named after V.A. Perovski (1794-1857), a Russian general. Hosta (plantain lily) is named for Nicholaus Tomas Host (1761-1834), physician to the Emperor of Austria. And Monarda (bee balm) is in honor of Nicolas Monardes (1493-1588), physician and botanist of Seville.
           
Going back even further in time is the peony (Paeonia) in honor of Paeon, a Greek physician to the gods. Most of us studied the explorers Lewis and Clark in school and their expedition to the Pacific Northwest.  A small alpine plant not hardy in this area (Lewisia) is named for them.
           
Then there are the descriptive perennial names. Primula is a medieval contraction 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 properties.
           
Lysimachia is Greek for "ending strife," hence our common name loosestrife. Lythrum from the Greek "lythron" or blood refers to the flower color; Lupinus from the Greek "lupus" or wolf refers to the erroneous thought that this plant destroyed soil fertility.
           
Cultivar (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 related cultivar ‘David’ is named for a person associated with the Brandywine 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 Month).
           
There are hundreds more scientific names too numerous to mention here, but which can be found in Stearn's Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners. This handy reference guide was written by William Stearn and published by Cassell Publishers, London. Look for it in your local library or from used book sellers.
                 

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