WHAT’S IN A NAME – HOW PLANTS GET THEIR NAMES

The universal language for naming plants is Latin . However, virtually all plants, both wild and cultivated are also known by a common name , eg. Stinking Roger , Drop Berry, Dog’s Clove, Goosegrass ! to name a few. These common names are usually extremely old and inextricably linked with folklore. The problem with common names is that some plants may have many and may be different in different countries . The herb Horsetail is also known as Mare’s Tail, Shave Grass, Fairy Spindle, Joint Grass , in Spanish Cola de Caballo , and in German Schachtelhalmkraut ! and all are Equisetum arvense!

It was the Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus ( 1707 -1778) who devised the system for classifying plant names, with the binomial nomenclature naming scheme. Each plant has been given two names, the first is the name of the genus eg. Thymus the second name is the specific epithet eg. vulgaris , together Thymus vulgaris most of us will know as Common Thyme. The scientific name is always written in italics and the first name always has a capital, while the second never starts with a capital. This system allows botanists and gardeners alike to correctly identify plants world- wide.

A little knowledge of Latin helps, I never thought I would use my schoolgirl Latin quite so much – Mrs Hill would be proud. Take the humble Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) comes from the latin ‘semper vivo ‘ meaning ‘ to live forever’ and the species tectorum means ‘ of the roofs’ dating back to when Houseleeks were grown on roofs to protect the houses from lightening and witchcraft. The common name derives from the Anglo-Saxon leac meaning plant , hence House plant. There is also an alternative common name – Welcome-Home-husband-however-drunk-you-be - alluding to the leaning flowering stems!

The second name of a plant, known as the specific epithet can also give an indication to its use, growing habit, where it grows or how widespread it is. A plant ending in ‘ vulgaris ‘ means ‘common’ , whereas a ‘officinalis’ means ‘of the shop ‘ and indicates that a plant was used for medicinal purposes. I rather like the term ‘pulsatilla’ meaning trembling and the Pasque Flower know an Anemone pulsatilla ¸ does appear to tremble in the slightest breeze. The ‘arvense’ in Equisetum arvense , ( Horestail) means ‘growing in fields’; while the ‘perforatum’ meaning ‘pierced’ in Hypericum perforatum , (St John’s Wort) refers to the hundreds of tiny glandular dots that look like holes in the leaves. The belief is that these dots ooze blood on August 29th the day that John the Baptist was executed.

There is a Botanical Code, known as the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) that sets out the rules for giving and using the scientific plant names, but Knitbone, Lousewort, and Farewell Summer are much more fun!!

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