For The Answer
What’s In a Name?
The history of plants and how they are named is interesting and very important. Like people and animals, plants have a proper or scientific name. They belong to a family by name, and they are individually identified by their own distinct characteristics. For example, there are numerous roses, blackberries, crabapples and plums, all different and unique; however, they all belong to the rose family. Similar traits place them within the same family, but we all know a plum tree is quite different from a rambling rose.
Plants also have common names. These names often create problems for the gardener seeking positive identification and proper plant management. For example, Flowering Quince in East Texas is called Japonica. German Iris may be called Flags or Bearded Iris. There are also Sweet Flags, Dutch Iris, Louisiana Iris, Yellow Flags and Grassy-leafed Sweet Flags. When boxwood is chosen, it may be Harland Boxwood, English Boxwood or Japanese Boxwood. If you choose English Boxwood, you may find 4 or more popular cultivars to choose from, each different. At least 15 different magnolias can be grown in East Texas, yet the Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, is the only magnolia known by the average gardener.
With thousands of plants throughout the world, it is no wonder that some form of systematic plant nomenclature had to be established. Even so, a given plant might have several different names in the same language, to say nothing of what it might be called in other languages. The simple pansy has about 50 common names in English and perhaps as many in French, Spanish and German, not to mention other languages.
To relieve this problem, universal scientific names were developed and have gradually come into use. Many of our present scientific names had their origin as common names that were widely used in ancient Greece and passed down by Greek writers. Many of these were subsequently changed to Latin by Roman authors who also added also added common Latin names for other plants. These Latin words that have already been used throughout history have become the international names for plants that we know today.
A problem arose, however, when a single classical word or name included several kinds of plants. For example, there came to be numerous species of the genera Quercus (oaks), Rosa (roses) and Viola (violets). It became necessary to use adjectives to distinguish between species, as with common names such as red oak, white oak, black oak, scarlet oak, etc. With the classical names, however, the adjectives are Latin words. They follow the noun instead of preceding it, as is generally the case in English. Thus, we have the combinations Quercus rubra (red oak), Quercus nigra (water oak) and Quercus alba (white oak).
Then another problem emerged: Most of the world's plants grew outside the boundaries of the ancient Roman Empire. Being unknown to the Romans, they had no Latin name. In order for the naming system to have universal application, it became necessary to "invent" Latin words by giving names a Latin appearance and associating them with certain known plants. For example, Tsuga (hemlock) came from the Japanese, Catalpa (catalpa) from the American Indian, and Ginkgo (ginkgo) from the Chinese. Many newly-discovered plants are named in honor of a person. Kalmia (Mountain Laurel) is named for Peter Kalm who found the plant in Pennsylvania. There is Claytonia for John Clayton, the first botanist of Virginia; Jeffersonia for Thomas Jefferson; Nicotiana for John Nicot who introduced tobacco into Europe, and Victoria for Queen Victoria.
Other names given to plants are of a fanciful, mythological or poetic origin. Nymphaea, the genus name for water lily, refers to beautiful water nymphs, while chocolate plants are members of the genus Theobroma, meaning "God's Food."
Regardless of their origin, plant names are usually interesting and instructive when their meanings are known. Whether a plant was discovered thousands of years ago or only last year, by understanding its name we can often learn something about its origin, desired habitat, use or character. The Tulip Tree, Liriodendron, means "Lilytree". It was named for the shape of its flowers. "Rubra" means red, "alta" means tall, "scandens" means climbing, "aquatica" means in water, "sylvatica" means in forests, "toxicaria" indicates poisonous, and "grandiflora" means grand flower.
So, what's in a name? When it comes to plant names, there
is abundant history, interest and meaning. Once we know what a name
means, it may be easier to remember, but not always easier to say or
spell. Most likely, we will continue to say "Virginia creeper"
rather than Parthenocissus quinquefolia, which means "Virgin Ivy
with five leaflets." Or, we can call it Woodbine, Five-Finger Creeper,
Five-Leaf Ivy, Englemann Virginia Creeper, St. Paul Virginia Creeper,
Red-Twig Virginia Creeper, or American Ivy.