Plant names explained in simple terms. How does a plant become an Elizabeth, Anne, or Ernest?

Plant names explained in simple terms. How does a plant become an Elizabeth, Anne, or Ernest?

Are you someone who is able to walk around a gorgeous garden and name just about every plant you see? Or do you find that plant names only get as far as the tip of your tongue and refuse to emerge in a coherent form? Why is it that common names are often far easier to remember than botanical versions? Why, even, do we need ‘proper’ names when everyone knows what we are talking about when we ask for St. John’s Wort; Ragged Robbin or Lungwort?

Ragged Robin, flowers, identification, names, plants, naming

Ragged Robin (above) has the botanical name of Lychnis flos-cuculi. Which is easiest to remember? The answer is simple. But if you want to achieve consistency around the world, Latin is the way to go. There's only ever one botanical name. Just imagine mentioning Rose of Sharon in the USA, where it’s actually the common name for Hibiscus syriacus. We use it alongside St. John’s Wort, which is actually the name for Hypericum.  The harebell in Scotland is what we call a bluebell in England.  And what about those names that originate from the shape of flowers or colour of foliage? Old Man’s Beard is one such common name which tends to be assigned to many different plants. There are at least five species of plants and lichens which have white wispy hairs at certain times of the year.

The snowball plant is often used as a name for various Viburnum. But it’s also commonly used to describe Hydrangea.

snowball bush, flowers, viburnum, names, nickname

The snowball-type flowers have resulted in Viburnum opulus being referred to as the 'snowball bush'. Then there’s Pulmonaria which is often called lungwort; Jerusalem primrose; Jack and Jill and Soldiers and Sailors. And milkmaids that are not necessarily the same from one county to the next. Cardamine pratensis is also known as the cuckoo flower or ladies smock. Here's a milkmaid (pictured below). Or is it lady's smock? Cuckoo flower perhaps? Cardamine pratensis, you'll be safe with that name.

  Milkmaid, cuckoo flower, lady's smock, cardamine pratensis, flowers, names

Or how about the tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, which is also known as the tulip poplar or yellow poplar, even though it’s not part of a poplar family. Confusing, isn’t it?   

Hence the requirement for names that don’t change, wherever you are in the world. The binomial system of nomenclature is a standardised method used by biologists to name plants and animals. It’s basically a fail-safe system that eliminates confusion over names.  They are not all Latin, incidentally. Many plant names originate from Greek and other ancient native languages. The Romans and Greeks formed the basis for plant names by describing a characteristic of the plant. Floribunda, for example, means an abundance of flowers. Erecta means upright and pendula means drooping. Sempervirens is a Latin description for evergreen. Sinensis is the Latin word for Chinese and alba means white. Carl Linnaeus was an 18th century naturalist and he devised a scientific system for plant names.  

Carl Linnaeus, names, plants, identification, garden

So Carl Linnaeus is the one to thank for the early classification of plant names. He devised two names for plant classification, the first being the genus and the second a more specific name. Plants with similar characteristics were grouped together into a family, therefore several genus would be merged - such as Malus which belong to the family Rosaceae. The family also includes Rosa and Prunus. It’s a hierarchy which becomes logical the more you think about it. Where to put the capital letters? The genus has one. But the species doesn’t. Therefore it’s officially Malus domestica, all of which is italicised. But then things get a little more complicated as there are now so many cultivated varieties which are shown in single quotes and they do not used itallics (but they do include capital letters). Hence Malus domestica  'Bramley's Seedling'.

Plants bearing familiar names - the perfect gift?

Some of the most popular plant gifts include plants that have people’s names. How does this happen? Generally plants that bear a person’s name have been named after someone who has a special link to the breeding of the plant.Comparatively modern rules apply to the formation of cultivar names. For instance, they must not be in Latin! They must comply with the rules laid out in the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. They have to be easy to pronounce and easily understood around the world. There are hundreds of different plants that bear easily recognised names such as ‘Susan’, for example. Magnolia ‘Susan’ (pictured below) has deep red-purple buds that open into delightful pinky lilac flowers.

Magnolia Susan, shrub, tree, name, gift, plant

There’s also a Rock rose or Halimium ‘Susan’ (pictured below with its cheerful yellow flowers) and a white blooming rose which is also called ‘Susan’.

 Halimium Susan, rock rose, plant, garden, gift, present, susan

Looking for an ‘Elizabeth’? There’s a delightful pink Clematis montana bearing the name. This glorious climber would make a great present for someone of that name.Or you could find a rose, a magnolia, campanula and a pittosporum with a similar name. The range of choice is hardly surprising, given the name of the Queen. Clematis 'Elizabeth' (pictured below) is a glorious climber which would make a great present for someone of that name.

Clematis Elizabeth, climber, plant, garden, gift, present, flowers, pink

Dianthus Doris, flower, gift, dianthus, doris, name, plant, garden

Dianthus 'Doris' (above) is a cheerful, pink perennial that would make any sort of Doris very happy. How about Sarah? Another Halimium (rock rose) and a rose have been awarded this name. There’s a ‘Ruby Tuesday’ Helenium perennial, a ‘Georgia Peach’ Heuchera and several Davids including a Phlox (pictured below), Dianthus and a Fuchsia. There’s a Potentilla named ‘Golden Annette’, a Dianthus called ‘Doris’ and then, of course, there’s Veronica, which has a genus all of its own.

Phlox 'David', plant, flowers, garden, gift, david..

So, if you are ever looking for a personal and rather charming gift, there’s bound to be a plant that will oblige! You could start by seeking out plants on Perfectplants.co.uk, or there's always the ever-present internet to browse.