What’s in a plant name?

Matt Biggs unravels some of the myths and magic surrounding garden plant names. The who, the why, the what and the where; that are often wrapped up in the plant’s botanical name.

A statue of Carl Linnaeus in Humelgarden in Stockholm. Image: AdobeStock/Stefanholm
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Latin plant names may seem scary, but I know that from experience that once you overcome a fear of Latin, and realise how easy they are to learn, they are absolutely fascinating.

Worldwide language

Latin names follow a system created by Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) as a way of identifying plants and animals by putting them into groups. They are written in italics or another font and underlined and written in Latin because it is a ‘dead’ language, that never changes and as the language of science, it is known worldwide. ’Common’ names can change from village to village. The reason that English is not used is because it changes – fast – more than 1000 words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary in September 2017.

Understanding plant names

Like plants, you have a surname, identifying you as a group and Christian names for the people within it, only with plants the surnames come first.

Fuchsia was named after a man who never even sore one! Image: AdobeStock/LesslieK

What makes these names interesting, are the stories behind them. Take fuchsia for example. There are about one hundred kinds of Fuchsia, in the wild. Among them are F. magellanica, F. microphylla and F. procumbens. ‘Fuchsia’ was named for Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) a German doctor, and herbalist, who became Professor of Tubingen, one of Germany’s oldest and most famous Universities. He also published a book of medicinal plants (herbal) noted for its beautiful woodcut prints. Remarkably, he never saw a Fuchsia – the first one was discovered after his death and named for him in 1703.

What do the other names tell us? F. magellanica, tells us it is the Fuchsia that comes from the Straits of Magellan in South America, F. microphylla, means ‘small leaved’ micro – small, phylla; leaves. It is the small leaved Fuchsia. The third Fuchsia is F. procumbens, we have the English word, procumbent or flat, so it is a ground hugging fuchsia. Each one is a concise description or story of the plant.

In commemoration

Lots of plants commemorate people, many of them botanists – magnolia was named for Pierre Magnol, (1638-1715) a Professor of Botany and Director of the botanic garden at Montpellier in France, who was also born into a family of pharmacists.

Plants with names in quote marks have been specifically bred or selected from a group of plants as good garden plants. Nurseryman Clarence Elliott from Stevenage, Hertfordshire, admired his neighbour’s Fuchsia hedge, discovered it was hardy and un-named, so called it after his neighbour, Fuchsia ‘Mrs. Popple’ and it has become a legend in gardens.

Learning more

There are two excellent and easy to read books on Latin names, both are perfect to dip into: Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners by William T.Stearn, a legend in the world of plant names, it crammed full of plants from Abelia to Zygopetalum with simple chapters on plant naming – there are lots of common names, too and the RHS Practical Latin for Gardeners by James Armitage, which is also excellent.

So is there a Richardia or jacksonii? There is a Richardia but it was named for Richard Richardson (1633-1741) who kept a garden in Brierly, north Yorkshire and Jacksonia is an Australian broom. Sorry, Mr Flower Power, you will just have to wait!

Matt Biggs

About Matt Biggs

Matt Biggs is a garden writer and broadcaster who loves plants of all kinds. In his own garden in Hertfordshire, there’s a small wildflower orchard, crammed with historic varieties, a woodland border highlighting plants commemorating the great collectors and a heritage vegetable garden. One of his favourite pastimes is the re-creation of a border, filled with exotic plants he has seen while travelling around the world.
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