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What’s in a Name? The Good, the Bad, and the Ordinary

Asclepias speciosa at Hayefield

Asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed)

Ready for another ramble through the wonderful world of botanical nomenclature? This time, let’s look at names that relate to…well, let’s call them value judgments – not specific traits like leaf shape, flower color, or geographic origin, but more subjective descriptors, along the lines of of really pretty, desperately dull, and utterly ordinary.

Allium carinatum subsp. pulchellum at Hayefield

Allium carinatum subsp. pulchellum

First, the happy batch. I like to imagine that the botanists who chose these names were having a really good day, picking up an herbarium specimen, thinking “Hey, that’s a nice-looking plant!” and then mentally flipping through the epithets they could choose from to share their delight with others. They had plenty of words for beautiful, charming, or lovely to choose from, among them:

  • amabile or amabilis: as in Cynoglossum amabile (Chinese forget-me-not) or Kolkwitzia amabilis (beautybush)
  • amoenus: as in Clarkia amoena (farewell-to-spring)
  • bellus: as in Sisyrinchium bellum (western blue-eyed grass)
  • formosus: as in Dicentra formosa (western bleeding heart)
  • pulchellus: as in Erigeron pulchellus (robin’s plantain) or Allium carinatum var. pulchellum
  • pulcher, pulcherrimus: as in Deutzia pulchra or Euphorbia pulcherrima (poinsettia)
Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Winter Rose Red’

Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Winter Rose Red’  (poinsettia)

Some plants get their beauty from the purity of their supposedly unmarked blooms, indicated by intaminatus (as in Cyclamen intaminatum), and immaculatus (as in Tigridia immaculata, which lacks the spots of other tiger flowers). On other plants, their charm comes from offering something extra special:

  • decoratus (decorated): as in Hosta decorata
  • lucidus (shining): as in Cotoneaster lucidus (shiny cotoneaster)
  • ornatus (adorned): as in Gentiana sino-ornata (Chinese gentian)
  • profusus (abundant): as in Gentianella profusa
Lamprocapnos [Dicentra] spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’

Lamprocapnos spectabilis Gold Heart’ (bleeding heart)

  • spectabile or spectabilis (spectacular): as in Lamprocapnos [Dicentra] spectabilis (bleeding heart)
  • speciosus (showy): as in Crocus speciosus (showy crocus) or Asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed)
Thalictrum speciosissimum at Hayefield

Thalictrum speciosissimum (dusty meadowrue)

  • speciosissimus (very showy): as in Thalictrum speciosissimum [T. flavum subsp. glaucum] (dusty meadowrue)
  • superbus (superb): as in Leucanthemum x superbum (Shasta daisy)
  • splendens (splendid): as in Asarum splendens (Chinese wild ginger) or Salvia splendens (scarlet sage)
Salvia splendens ‘Dancing Flames’ at Hayefield

Salvia splendens ‘Dancing Flames’ (scarlet sage)

Beauty can come from a graceful form, pleasing proportions, or an overall sense of elegance, as denoted by:

  • elegantulus (somewhat elegant): as in Aquilegia elegantula (western red columbine)
  • elegans (elegant): as in Aristolochia elegans (elegant Dutchman’s pipe)
  • elegantissimus (very elegant): as in Deutzia x elegantissima (elegant deutzia) or Buxus sempervirens ‘Elegantissima’ (variegated common boxwood)
  • gracile or gracilis (graceful): as in Mentha x gracilis (ginger mint)
  • venustus (charming): as in Adiantum venustum (Himalayan maidenhair fern)
Buxus sempervirens ‘Elegantissima’ at Hayefield

Buxus sempervirens ‘Elegantissima’ (variegated common boxwood)

Grace and daintiness are all well and good, but gardeners also have a great appreciation for plants that are vigorous growers. Some epithets related to size, strength, or abundance include:

  • excelsus (tall): as in Metrosideros excelsa (New Zealand Christmas tree)
  • excelsior (taller): as in Fraxinus excelsior (European ash)
  • proliferus (prolific): as in Allium cepa Proliferum Group (tree onion or walking onion)
  • robustus (robust): as in Eremurus robustus (foxtail lily)
  • tenacissima (very strong): as in Stipa tenacissima (esparto or needle grass)
  • tenax (strong): as in Phormium tenax (New Zealand flax)
Fritillaria imperialis

Fritillaria imperialis (crown imperial)

For some botanists, giving a plant a majestic epithet was obviously a high compliment.

  • imperiale or imperialis (imperial): as in Fritillaria imperialis (crown imperial)
  • regius, regalis (royal): as in Juglans regia (English walnut) or Osmunda regalis (royal fern)
  • reginae (queen): as in Agave victoriae-reginae (Queen Victoria agave)
  • rex (king): as in Begonia rex (rex begonia)

For others, a plant’s beauty is worthy of an even higher power, or the plant itself may have sacred uses, indicated by benedictus (blessed) – as in Cnicus benedictus (blessed thistle) – or sanctus (holy) – as in Ocimum sanctum (holy basil).

Mirabilis jalapa ‘Marbles’ at Hayefield

Mirabilis jalapa ‘Marbles’ (four-o’clock)

To wrap up this group, here’s an assortment of epithets that relate to a wide variety of terrific traits:

  • bonus (good): as in Chenopodium bonus-henricus (good king Henry)
  • eximius (exceptional, superb): as in Dicentra eximia (wild bleeding heart)
  • insigne or insignis (distinguished): as in Brugmansia x insignis (angel’s trumpet)
  • magnificus (magnificent): as in Geranium x magnificum
  • mirabile or mirabilis (remarkable): as in Mirabilis jalapa (four-o’clock)
  • peregrinus (exotic, foreign): as in Comptonia peregrina (sweetfern)
Tulipa praestans ‘Unicum’ at Hayefield

Tulipa praestans ‘Unicum’

  • praestans (distinguished, excellent): as in Tulipa praestans
  • princeps (eminent): as in Galtonia princeps (summer hyacinth)
  • vera or veris (true): as in Aloe vera (aloe) or Primula veris (cowslip)

Clearly, coming up with superlatives to describe lovely plants kept happy botanists of yore pretty busy. They obviously had bad days too, though, and when they couldn’t think of anything nice to say, they sometimes made use of these epithets indicating weakness, misery, or other undesirable qualities.

  • debile or debilis (weak): as in Aristolochia debilis (Dutchman’s pipe)
  • delicatus (delicate): as in Polemonium pulcherrimum subsp. delicata (Jacob’s ladder)
  • fastuosus (proud, haughty): as in Datura fastuosa [D. metel] (angel’s trumpet)
  • flaccidus (feeble, pendulous): as in Yucca flaccida (weak-leaved yucca)
  • foetidus (foul-smelling): as in Symplocarpus foetidus (skunk cabbage)
Helleborus foetidus with Itea virginica 'Little Henry' at Hayefield

Helleborus foetidus (stinking hellebore)

  • foetidissima (seriously foul-smelling): as in Iris foetidissima (stinking iris)
  • fragile or fragilis (brittle): as in Cystopteris fragilis (fragile fern)
  • hypochondriacus (melancholy): as in Amaranthus hypochondriacus (amaranth)
  • nauseosus (strong- or foul-smelling): as in Chrysothamnus nauseosus (rabbitbrush)
  • pudicus (shy, bashful): as in Mimosa pudica (sensitive plant)
  • pusillus (tiny, insignificant): as in Trillium pusillum (least trillium or dwarf wakerobin)
  • sterile or sterilis (sterile, barren): as in Bromus sterilis (poverty brome)
  • tenellus (delicate): as in Prunus tenella (dwarf Russian almond)
Stipa tenuissima at Hayefield

Stipa tenuissima (Mexican feather grass)

  • tenuis; tenuissima (thin; very thin): as in Juncus tenuis (slender rush) or Stipa [Nassella] tenuissima (Mexican feather grass)
  • triste or tristis (dull, sad): as in Salix alba ‘Tristis’ (weeping willow) or Gladiolus tristis (ever-flowering gladiolus)
Gladiolus tristis with Abutilon 'Souvenir de Bonn' at Hayefield

Gladiolus tristis (ever-flowering gladiolus)

  • vomicus (foul, filthy): as in Strychnos nux-vomica (strychnine tree)
  • vomitorius (emetic, used to induce vomiting): as in Ilex vomitoria (yaupon holly)
Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita’ at Hayefield

Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita’ (castor bean)

Busy botanists apparently got bored on occasion, as well, to the point that they weren’t much inspired to find interesting names for plants that were already widely known and grown, or for those that were generally undistinguished. So, they made free use of epithets for common and ordinary, including the following:

  • commune or communis: as in Juniperus communis (common juniper) or Ricinus communis (castor bean)
  • triviale or trivialis: as in Poa trivialis (rough bluegrass)
  • usitatus, usitatissimus: as in Juncus usitatus or Linum usitatissimum (common flax)
  • vulgare or vulgaris: as in Foeniculum vulgare (common fennel) or Aquilegia vulgaris (columbine)
Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Black Barlow’ at Hayefield

Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Black Barlow’ (columbine)

When you get frustrated trying to tell similar plants apart or to keep all of these crazy names straight in your head, it’s nice to think that the folks who came up with these names sometimes had similar troubles, to the point that they even admitted it when assigning epithets.

Consolida ambigua at Hayefield

Consolida ambigua (larkspur)

Here are some epithets they used for species that were in some way vague, confusing, or otherwise odd.

  • ambiguus (doubtful): as in Consolida ambigua (larkspur)
  • anomalus (unusual): as in Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris (climbing hydrangea)
  • controversus (controversial): as in Cornus controversa (giant dogwood)
Eutrochium dubium ‘Little Joe’ at Hayefield

Eutrochium dubium ‘Little Joe’ (Joe-Pye weed)

  • dubius (doubtful): as in Eutrochium [Eupatorium] dubium (Joe-Pye weed)
  • fallax (deceptive): as in Colocasia fallax (dwarf elephant’s ear)
  • mutabile or mutabilis (changeable): as in Nicotiana mutabilis (flowering tobacco)
  • obscurus (obscure): as in Digitalis obscura (sunset foxglove)
  • paradoxus (contrary to expectation): as in Echinacea paradoxa (yellow-flowered purple coneflower)
  • spurius (false, deceptive): as in Sedum spurium (two-row stonecrop)
Nicotiana mutabilis at Hayefield

Nicotiana mutabilis (flowering tobacco)

Well, that’s more than enough nomenclature for now, I think. A final FYI for those of you who find this stuff interesting, though: Did you know that, thanks to The Linnean Society, you can access digitized versions of all of Linnaeus’ herbarium specimens? You can search the collection of over 14,000 specimens many different ways (by genus, specific epithet, collector, country, etc.), and when you find one of interest, you can magnify the pressed specimen to see a high level of detail. The site also includes Linnaeus’ fish, insect, and shell collection, as well as copies of over 4,000 letters he received from 600 different correspondents. It’s a fascinating place to spend a few hours poking around. You can find the main page here: The Linnean Collections.

Posted on 12 Comments

12 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? The Good, the Bad, and the Ordinary

  1. I am fascinated by words but often too busy to look them up. I love this series of posts. I am traumatized by all the recent changes in botanical names and am doing my best to ignore the new name for D. spectabilis.

    Isn’t it an awful name? I have to look it up every time I go to use it, because it just won’t stick in my brain. Getting used to Symphyotrichum was bad enough, but once I heard someone pronounce it, I could at least remember it.

  2. This was a fun and informative “lesson” on names!

    Thanks, Freda!

  3. Educational, entertaining…. a wonderful post on taxonomy. As always, I enjoy your posts immensely!

    Hi there, Cathy – thanks so much for reading, and for the lovely comment. Hope spring is going well for you!

  4. This is such a great series for a new-ish gardener like me! Latin names can be so confusing…thanks for shedding some light on the subject!

    I really enjoy doing these because I learn a lot too, Kate. I’m so glad that other gardeners find this stuff interesting, or at least of some use.

  5. Haha! I agree with Carolyn. The new name for Dicentra has been stricken from my memory. I refuse to learn it!

    As a lover of botanical Latin I really enjoy your posts.

    Thanks, Leaves. Maybe we could all agree to completely ignore the new name and hope it will just go away. Kind of worked with the whole Chrysanthemum/Dendranthema thing.

  6. Another great post thanks Nan!

    Perusing the gorgeous pics is makes a taxonomy lesson fun! I adore that Thalictrum alongside the 2 golden plants – marjoram perhaps, and ?.

    The bit of gold on the right edge is Cornus sericea subsp. occidentalis ‘Sunshine’ (a yellow-leaved red-twig dogwood), and that near the base of the thalictrum is Melissa officinalis ‘All Gold’ (golden lemon balm – though it does look very much like a golden oregano or marjoram in the photo, so that was an excellent guess).

  7. Another great post. I still prefer the name Cladrastis lutea even though it has been changed to Cladrastis kentuckea. Your photographs are inspiring, thanks Nan.

    Thanks so much, Erica. It’s difficult to overwrite the names we learn first, isn’t it? Having them sometimes change back is great, but having them change a third or fourth time makes it nearly hopeless. I think that’s the only disadvantage to having gardened for a long time.

  8. Another delightful blog… always interesting to know why things are named what they are named… Dicentra will always be dicentra to me too however. I am too old to learn new tricks!
    As an aside, how did your garden fare during the recent snowstorm? Did you get snow in PA? How has it affected your plants? I always think of you when they predict weird weather in the northeast…

    No snow reached here, but we did get below freezing for several nights in a row this past weekend, which was worse. I learned some valuable lessons about which plants to protect next time that happens – which hopefully won’t be again this spring. I hope your weather is being more cooperative, Kate!

  9. I love these posts almost beyond reason…there’s something so empowering about knowing what those names mean! I’ve always felt a little bad for plants with the epithet “vulgaris”…poor Columbines!

    Yeah – poor columbines…and English primroses…and lilacs. And if it’s not bad enough to be “vulgaris,” then you usually get to be “common [whatever]” when you get your common name. Well, they manage to rise above that anyway.

  10. I enjoy these posts a lot. I had no idea pulchellus means pretty. It really doesn’t sound like an attractive word to me.

    I agree, Sharon!

  11. Another beautiful post, and very educational, thank you!

    Hi Sandi – thanks in return for your kind note!

  12. I enjoy these essays so much, and also your exceptional photography.

    Thank you so much, Lyn! I have a couple more in mind, but it may be a while until I have time to compile them.

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