The Origin of plants names.

Plants, wild flowers, have two types of names, common or popular names and a scientific name. They may have and often do have lots of common names but they will only have one scientific name and this will be the same the world over.

Roslin Alexander:Carl von Linné, 1707-1778.
With thanks to  Nationalmuseum, Public Domain,

The system of using scientific names which is known as the binomial system was introduced by Linneaus in the 18th century (1765). Each species, plant or animal is given two names. Its first name denotes its genus and the second is its species. Incidentally the first name has a capital letter and the second is spelt with a little letter. So we have Ranunculus repens. This denotes it is a type of Buttercup and the specific species is the Creeping buttercup. There are often several species in each genus so we also have Ranunculus acris, and Ranunculus bulbosus and so on. In fact there are hundreds of species in this genus and they are found all over the world. Have a look at Wikipedia’s Ranunculus list . You do occasionally get a genus with just one species Like Homo sapien, however in times gone by this genus did have other species like Homo erectus.

The advantage of this system is that a botanist or scientist in every part of the world will use the same scientific name for each species. So if you said Ranunculus repens to a Chinese botanist he or she would know what you were talking about, as would an Albanian or an Icelandic person. Communication would be limited of course to just scientific names so it could become tedious.

I recall a night in Greece where we spent the evening with a very friendly Greek man who did not speak any English, and we only spoke a few words of Greek. As the evening progressed and the wine flowed conversation centered on football, it went like this. ‘Manchester’.. ‘Oh Manchester‘….’United’  ‘Hmm United‘ ( with a thumbs up)…. ‘City’…. ‘Ha! City‘ with a thumbs down….. ‘Bobby Charlton’….   ‘Bobby Charlton‘  (with much nodding)….  ‘Munich’….. ‘Oh Munich‘ ( with sad face )………sip of wine…..’ Liverpool’ ….. and so it went on for several hours.    Could be similar with a Chinese botanist and an English botanist???

OK scientific names have certain advantages but I contend that they lack romanticism, they are dull, they are for nerds.  Geoffrey Grigson writing in 1947 summed it up quite well. ‘Our ordinary relation to flowers comes out in the affectionate, observant and often very attractive and satisfying names we have given them’ He goes on to list names invented or recorded by some of the great Botanists of the past, William Turner between 1538 and 1548, also by Henry Lyte in his ‘Nieue Herball or Historia of Plants’ 1578 and then Gerrard from 1597.

He also says that what makes a plant interesting is not simply its shape, colour, number of stamens, life cycle etc, but the myriad of facts,that each person builds up  as they study them more and more. This includes why it is called  for example, Milk maids or Cuckoo flower or even Ladies Smock.. ( I never knew the origin of Ladies Smock until recently and it is quite surprising…. more of that later.) Also information on what the plant has been used for in the past, whether its population is increasing or is it becoming more rare. And your own personal encounters with a plant all add up to make a plant more or less interesting.  Just a scientific name and a stylised description such as you might get in Clapham, Tutin and Warburg or Stace might be ‘scientific’ but quite dull as well.

I recall a trip some years ago to Newmarket race course to see Lizard Orchids, which was successful, some of them had paper bags on them to catch the seeds, I think Cambridge University wee doing some research on propagating them. Some years later we were visiting some ancient monument in central France and I came across quite a few of these peculiar shaped orchids and they were magnificent specimens. I was so excited that I accosted some other visitors to the monument to show them these rare orchids that I had only ever seen once before. They politely told me that they were not rare in this part of France and that they had some growing at the bottom of their garden.. Hey ho! so now I know, but it all adds to the tapestry of facts that build up to make Lizard Orchids what they are to me. Far more than Himantoglossum hircinum and a turgid scientific description in a Botany key.

Geoffrey Grigson gives an example relating to Stinging Nettle, hardly the most exciting plant in the country but he recalled looking at a preserved specimen in the Natural History museums collection and it had been originally prepared and cataloged by none other than Carl Linneaus. More than this despite the long period of time since it was originally picked it still managed to sting Geoffrey Grigson… So that is quite memorable.

Let us look at a few common plant names and their origins, which can be obvious, surprising, and sometimes quite lewd. After all many names originate from Anglo Saxon times and they are not known for polite language, many of our swear words are derived from Old English.

Quite a few common names have quite an obvious origin because they describe the flower, like Bluebell or Buttercup. Others describe the habitat or at least the name partly describes it,  for example Wallflower or Field Clover. Then we have names relating to the shape of leaves like Pennywort or Ragwort. Also as many people know Dandylion refers to the leaves which are jagged and shaped like lions teeth so in French ‘Dent de Lion’. This is one of the plant names we owe to the Norman invasion, but it was the Anglo Saxons living in Britain after the Norman invasion who corrupted the French name into Dandelion.  I wonder what it was originally called by the Anglo Saxons? I have read another name for it which is “devil’s milkpail”,  but whether that  is derived from Old English I do not know. Also as is commonly known, there is another French name for this plant which is Pissenlit, because eating it which people sometimes do as a salad or maybe in wines, jellies and other preserves can cause bed time problems especially for small children.

This brings me on to another group of names which relate to either culinary or perceived medicinal use of wildflowers. So we have names like like Nipplewort and Garlic Mustard. The former is named for its perceived benefit in treating swollen or ulcerated nipples. Garlic Mustard because it tastes and smells of garlic but also  tastes a bit like mustard… not difficult.

Incidentally many plant names end with ‘wort’ which derives from the Anglo Saxon ‘wyrt’. This really means ‘root’ and not plant which is what many people say.  In Old English Wyrt-tun means vegetable garden and wyrt-geard became win-geard is now vineyard. Many plant names contain wort but this does not necessarily date back to Anglo Saxon times. Often 18th century and 19th Century botanists used wort as part of a plant name when they were giving plants names. Quillwort (Isoetes lacustris) is such an example. The leaves are shaped like quills and it was given this name in the 18th century.

However there are names which at first sight are inexplicable, at least to me, and others where you think you can see the derivation but the words have changed and original meanings have been obscured. For example Meadow Sweet sounds fairly obvious as a sweet smelling flower which grows in Meadows, but no, it gets its name because it was added to Mead to sweeten the flavour thus it was Meadsweet.  Also in German it is known as Madesuss and was formerly known as meadowyrt from medu-mead and wyrt- plant or root.

Another interesting example is the plant known as Cuckoo Pint or Lords and Ladies. Both names relate to sexual connotations. Lets deal with the easy one first, though I must admit the explanation had never crossed my mind before I started to research this article. Lords and Ladies, well lords are men and males have a penis and at the centre of the flower is a spadix. This is a rod shaped protuberance which pokes up straight from the lower part of the flower and is often a purple colour.  Ladies are female and females have a vulva. The main visible part of the flower is called the cowl which is oval and narrows to a point at the top and has a narrow  opening at the front. Need I say more?

Another name is Cuckoo Pint, now the explanation of this is  a bit more tortuous but it again all comes back to the phallic shaped spadix at the centre of the flower. Originally it was not pint but pintle which is Old English for ‘cock’ or ‘prick’ and the flower was called Priest’s pintle or Parson’s pintle.  Why the parson? Well there was a view that back in the 16th century the parson was not only concerned with the spiritual well being of his parishioners but also used his position to introduce some of the female parishioners to his pintle!  So the parson was a bit like the cuckoo which fathers offspring that do not belong to the nest. It also ties in nicely with the time of year that the plant produces its flowers, this is when cuckoos return to the country. Finally in  1551 William Turner, who named many plants in that era, decided to give it a some what less vulgar name and called it coccowpynt. Coccow is now Cuckoo and  Pynt is the modern day pint , nothing innocuous about that but still fairly close to the original pintle.

Well perhaps I will in future refer to this plant as Arum Lilly to avoid any lewd Anglo Saxon connections.

Whist I am in Old English mode and meanings with a sexual link, lets consider the derivation of Lady’s Smock, which also has other names like Milkmaids or Cuckoo flower.  Lady’s  Smock this innocuous pretty little pink flower of the damp meadows and roadsides was also referred to in Old English. documents as ‘Lustmoce’. This sounds similar to Lady’s Smock but what did it mean? Lust means as it does now…. sexual desire and moce is muck. On this plant you can often find what we know as Cuckoo spit which is a white frothy material in which the larvae of a leaf hopper is found. However back in the Anglo Saxon days it looked to them like ejaculate… the ‘muck from lust’ …… Sorry its the Anglo Saxons, as I said they were responsible for most of our swear words.

Let us finish off by selecting a few other plant names which  I find interesting. Incidentally there is a book (out of print but easily available second hand ) by Geoffrey Grigson which is dedicated to common names and was the source for some of the information in this article.

The origins of many old names is  Old English, but also names derived from Latin are quite common. After all Latin was used by the educated and the clergy, throughout much of history.  There are very few names relating to other people who lived in Britain or invaded Britain. I have found only a few plant names which may have a Celtic origin and Romano Celtic origin. Laurel, some suggest that laurus is itself derived from the Old Celtic laur meaning ‘green’. Another is Allium which could derive from the Celtic all meaning  ‘burning or  pungent’. We also have Fagus  – The genus of the Beech. It is derived from the Latin word for a Beech tree but also the name appears as a Romano-Gallic god of beech trees.

Gradually the Anglo Saxon invasions occurred roughly from 450 onward and the Old English language became established so it is not surprising that very few plant common names relate back to before this time. Also Old English lasted for a long time and gradually became modern English so despite invasions from Vikings and Normans it is not surprising that few words from their languages have become part of the common names in use today. We have mentioned Dandelion and there is of course Asphodel which has a Greek origin but also became corrupted to Affodel and thus to Daffodil. The Vikings made vegetable dyes from plants to colour their clothes: blue (from the woad plant), red (from madder) and yellow (from weld), though whether they called those plants by those names I am not sure.

The other major source  of plant names were herbalists and later scientists. I have already mentioned some from the 1500’s and perhaps we should add J. Ray (1628-1705) An Englishman,  also we should add J. P. Tournafort (1656-1708) A Frenchman who traveled widely throughout Europe and into Asia Minor and Africa, collecting and then introducing over 1300 new plants. These people often invented names based on Greek or Latin names. So we have Anemones from the Greek Anemos for wind as they flower in March when it is quite windy and they shake in the wind..

Finally lets finish off with Forget me Not .. The story involves a German knight in medieval times gathering blue flowers for his lady love along the banks of the Danube. He is said to have scurried down the bank to gather the flowers just as a “freshet” (flash flood) roared down the river. As he was swept away forever, he tossed the bouquet to his lady with three immortal words, “Forget me not.” Maybe, Maybe not we will never know but its a good story.

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