Posted on 11 Comments

What’s in a Name? Let’s Get Animal

Erythronium dens-canis

It’s the season for studying seed catalogs and seed-exchange lists, which always gets me thinking about how fascinating botanical names can be. For this part of my What’s in a Name? series, I’ve collected a bunch of epithets that relate to mammals. Sometimes, these epithets refer to plant traits that resemble the shapes, markings, or parts of particular animals. In other cases, the connections are tenuous at best, perhaps existing only in the mind of the person that chose the epithet in the first place. Even if you don’t know why a plant has an animal-related botanical name, it may at least help you remember the connection between its botanical and common names.

Rosa caninaSpotting plant names that contain animal references is easier if you know a bit of Latin and Greek, but it’s not really necessary if you’re up on your animal trivia, in the form of collateral adjectives: the “of or relating to” words usually ending in “-ine.”

Cynoglossum virginicumTake “canine,” for example: you probably know that means “of or relating to dogs,” so it’s no stretch to remember that Rosa canina is commonly known as dog rose, or Viola canina as dog violet. And how about Erythronium dens-canis? Think “tooth” for dens (as in “dental”), put it with “dog” for canis, and you’ve got the common name dog-tooth violet. Seeing “cyno-” (from the Greek cynos or kynos)  in a name is another clue to a dog reference, as in Cynoglossum (hound’s tongue) or Apocynum (dogbane).Nepeta cataria

“Feline,” for cat, is also an obvious one, though there aren’t many plants with feline-related names. I did find Faucaria felina, a cactus sometimes known as tiger jaws. There’s also Bulbinella cauda-felis: Latin cauda for “tail” and felis for “cat” makes “cat’s-tail,” which gives a good mental image of the elongated, slender, fuzzy flower clusters of this South African bulb. There’s also an obvious cat relationship in Nepeta cataria (catnip) and Macfadyena unguis-cati (cat’s-claw vine).Equisetum arvense

“Equine” for horse is another easy one, but I could find only two uses in plant names: the genus Equisetum (horsetails) and the species Ophrys ferrum-equinum. Even if you know that ferrum refers to iron (hence “iron of horses”), the latter botanical name doesn’t make much sense until you find out that this particular orchid has a horseshoe-shaped marking on the flower. “Hippo-,” from the Greek ippos, is another hint at a horse reference, as in Hippocastanum (horse chestnuts) and Hippophae rhamnoides (sea buckthorn), which the ancient Greeks apparently fed to horses to give them shiny coats.Carya porcina (C. glabra)

For pig-related things, there’s “porcine,” but it seems that botanists didn’t make much of a connection between pigs and plants, except for pignut hickory, which used to be known as Carya porcina (now Carya glabra).

They didn’t often link cows—“bovine”—with plants, either; the only example I could find was Suillus bovinus, the Jersey cow mushroom. For bull-like, there’s “taurine” (think of the zodiacal sign Taurus, the bull). Apparently someone fancied a likeness between the large, horned blooms of bull orchid, giving it the name Dendrobium taurinum. Ready for a particularly delicious bit of trivia? If you’ve ever seen the common name Siberian bugloss for Brunnera macrophylla and wondered what in the world a “bugloss” is, wonder no more: it’s derived from the Greek words for “ox” and “tongue” and refers to the shape and roughness of the leaves. How about that?

Staying in the barnyard, there’s “ovine” for sheep, as in Festuca ovina, commonly called sheep fescue. Goats get two words: usually it’s “caprine,” as in Salix caprea (goat willow, a.k.a. pussy willow), but where botanists want to get across the point that a plant has a strong goat-like odor, they may choose “hircine,” as in Himantoglossum hircinum, a European terrestrial orchid with stinky flowers.

Lilium tigrinum

Sometimes collateral adjectives are easy to guess even if you’ve not run across them before, as in “zebrine” for zebra (think of the striped leaves of wandering Jew, Tradescantia zebrina); “tigrine” for tiger, as in tiger lily, which used to be Lilium tigrinum though is now L. lancifolium; and “cameline” for camel (as in Camelina sativa, an annual cabbage-family plant that’s being investigated as a source of biofuel). Sadly, I couldn’t find any plant “lamine” names: botanists must have never noticed any likeness between plants and llamas or alpacas.Elephantopus carolinianus

You’d not be blamed for assuming that a plant name related to “elephantine” would indicate a large size, as in Chondropetalum elephantinum (large cape rush) or Erianthus elephantinus, the old name for Saccharum ravennae (Ravenna grass or hardy pampas grass, which can easily reach to 10 feet or more in height). There’s also elephantipes and elephantopus (“elephant’s foot”), as in Dioscorea elephantipes and Yucca elephantipes, both of which eventually develop large, stout stems that could be likened to the foot of an elephant. But then there’s Elephantopus carolinianus, the Carolina elephant’s foot, a 2- to 3-foot-tall, relatively demure wildflower that’s not particularly elephant-like, except maybe for its broad basal leaves.Leontopodium alpinum

I bet you can guess that “leonine,” as in Leo the lion, relates to leonis and other leo- names. There’s Dendrobium leonis (the lion’s-mouth orchid), for example; Leontopodium alpinum (edelweiss, with furry-bracted flowers that I suppose could be likened to a lion’s paw); and Leontodon taraxacum (the old name for the common dandelion, with its sharply toothed leaves). Leonotis leonurus gives us double the lion, translating to “lion-ear lion-tail.”

Though you probably hadn’t noticed the connection before, think of “delphine” for dolphins and you’ll quickly make the mental leap to Delphinium. (Look at the flower buds next time you see one getting ready to flower and, if you have a good imagination, you might spot the resemblance.)

And how about “pardaline” for leopard? That’s one botanists like to use for spotted markings, as in Dactylorhiza pardalina (leopard orchid, with spotted leaves) and Lilium pardalinum (leopard lily, with spotted flowers). There’s also Doronicum pardalianches, commonly called giant leopard’s bane. The reason for the name is obscure, but if you grow one, there’s a very good chance that you’ll never spot a leopard prowling through your plantings.


To finish this group, let’s look at some of the more obscure collateral adjectives for mammals:Lycopersicon

  • lupine: relating to wolves, as in the genus Lupinus, or Humulus lupulus (hops), from lupulus, Latin for “little wolf.” The Greek lykos or lycos  also gives us a number of “lyc-” and “lyco-” names, such as  Lycopersicon, the genus for tomatoes (formerly known as “wolf peaches”).
  • vulpine: relating to foxes, as in Carex vulpina (fox sedge) or Fritillaria uva-vulpis (fox’s grape). There’s also vulparia, as in Aconitum lycoctonum subsp. vulparia, which is now commonly called wolfbane but Arctostaphyloswhich used to be foxbane (when it was simply Aconitum vulparia).
  • cervine: relating to deer, as in Lupinus cervinus (deer lupine, also known as Santa Lucia lupine).
  • ursine: relating to bears; think of the constellations Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear), or the plants Allium ursinum (bear’s garlic) and Angelica ursina (bear’s angelica). The Greek arktos gives us more bear-related names, as in Arctotis, and double the bear in Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (bearberry).
  • leporine (or lapine or lepine): relating rabbits and/or hares, as in Dalea leporina, which is commonly known as hare’s foot prairie clover, or sometimes foxtail prairie clover (which I suppose should make it something like Dalea cauda-vulpina). If you’ve ever read Watership Down, you may remember that Lapine was the language spoken by the rabbits.Myosotis
  • murine: relating to mice and rats, as in Hordeum murinum subsp. leporinum, which nicely combines two animal references and is commonly known as either mouse barley or hare barley. The Greek word for mouse also gives us some “myo-“ names, as in Myosotis for forget-me-nots, with their small, fuzzy leaves that someone thought looked like a mouse’s ear.Echinacea pallida
  • echine or erinacine: those of us in North America don’t have much cause to think about hedgehogs, but if we did need a word for “of or relating to hedgehogs,” I suppose either “echine”—based on the Greek echinos—or “erinacine,” based on the Latin erinaceus—would work. While we don’t have hedgehogs in our gardens, we do have a number of “echin-” or “echino-” plants there, such as Echinops (sea hollies, with spiny-looking blooms) and Echinacea (coneflowers, with spiky seedheads), as well as several prickly cactus genera. And if all of this information overload makes you want to curl up in a ball and be prickly for the rest of the day, you can certainly be forgiven for being erinaceous!

Echinocactus ingens

Image sources:

Britton, Nathaniel Lord and Addison Brown. An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Second edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913. [Rosa canina, Equisetum arvense, Elephantopus carolinianus, Lycopersicon lycopersicon, and Myosotis scorpioides]

Illick, Joseph. Pennsylvania Trees. Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters, 1928. [pignut hickory]

Macself, A.J. Alpine Plants. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923. [Leontopodium alpinum]

Mathews, F. Schuyler. Field Book of American Wild Flowers.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1911. [Cynoglossum virginicum, Nepeta cataria, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, and Echinacea pallida]

Sedgwick, Mabel Cabot. The Garden Month by Month. Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., 1907. [Erythronium dens-canis, Lilium tigrinum, and Lupinus polyphyllus]

Wilder, Louise Beebe. The Garden in Color, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937. [Echinocactus ingens]

Posted on 11 Comments

11 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Let’s Get Animal

  1. Sorry to say, but this is nothing for me! I´ts enough to know the Latin name I think!!
    (You know I´m Swedish and have to push for the use of it ! :-) )

    I know what you’re saying, Susie: I’m all for learning and using botanical names. But when I was going through my old floras to find pictures, it was interesting to see how many botanical names have changed multiple times over the years, while the common names have stayed the same.

  2. I love those early 20th century photos and engravings! Great post, Nan! I’m surprised how much ancient Greek is identical to the modern Greek I remember. Normally spot on. I had totally forgotten the word for hedgehog, though, so was happy to see it again. I’ll never forget asking a friend what little grilled animals the gypsies on Santorini were eating – I thought they were fat rats – and the greek said “Echinos”, but when I looked it up and saw “hedgehog”, I didn’t know what that was either. an 18 year old American who somehow missed out on Beatrix Potter and other English stories?! The Lupine photo makes me miss Maine. Fields and fields of it flower in late May, early June, if I remember well. Waves of purple and pink.

    Really, they *eat* them? Yikes. And oh, the lupines…I’ve always wanted to grow them for their Monty Python association (Dennis Moore, the Lupin Bandit), but they aren’t very happy here. It must be an amazing experience to see whole fields of them.

  3. I am just learning for my Fieldbotany study and this Blog helped me to remember some names better. Thanks a lot!
    Helene from Switzerland

    Wonderful to hear from you, Helene. I hope you and the dogs are all well. Enjoy your studies!

  4. Quite an interesting article.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Thanks, Nancy. I always enjoy your blog – this one was a real treat.


    Very kind of you to say that, Barbara. I know this sort of thing isn’t to everyone’s taste, but these name posts are a lot of fun for me to write, so it’s good to know that at least a few other people are equally geeky.

  6. Oh Nan, yet another beautifully eloquent post that also teaches the reader!
    [That’s a shame about the “lamine” thing, but I’m sure the boys will be okay… ;D]
    I’m always in awe at how names are given to plants, how it’s mostly through description!
    The ‘blown-away’ knowledge learnt today? Echinacea! I would have never thought to consider ‘echidna’ since we don’t pronounce them the same way! Hee hee hee.

    Also, I do not think I’ve mentioned it, but I *love* the new blog redesign! :D

    Great, Donna – I’m happy to know you’ve picked up something of interest! And thanks for commenting on the new look. I can’t take credit for it; it’s just a free WordPress theme. But it’s green and fresh-looking, so it seemed an appropriate choice.

  7. Oh I loved this-very educational. Love hearing about the latin origins for descriptive names.

    Nan- you are quite the researcher and historian too!

    Thanks so much, Monica. This was a particularly intriguing group of names, and an extensive one, too. I was planning to cover birds, insects, and reptiles here as well, but the post was already so long that they’ll have to wait for another time.

  8. Lycoperdon and Onopordum are two of my favorites, and useful to use when people start thinking Latin names are too highfalutin.

    Oh, brilliant, Nancy – how did I miss those? And for the extra animal reference: Lycoperdon echinatum: the spiny wolf-fart puffball!

  9. Love, love love your geeky plant-nerd blogs! Fascinating to know what all those names mean and have them make a little(sometimes only a little) sense! Great approach to look at categories such as animals, birds, insects etc.– so much more memorable and “bite-size” for our brains. I work in the medical field so Latin and Greek are part of the language I use every day. “Med-speak”, my husband calls it! I well remember how I struggled years ago to memorize all those root words, suffixes and prefixes. Now I spend half my day seeking to translate “med-speak” into the vernacular for my patients. I guess you could say I am bilingual! Anyway, latin names for plants has always made sense to me even when the pronunciation is daunting, so thanks for the informative blog.

    Hi Kate! Next on my list of topics to tackle in this series (after the birds, etc.) is names related to body parts, so you should love that one. You probably know a lot more of those than I do. Pulmonaria and hepatica and cephalaria – oh my! I wish I could start working on it right this minute.

  10. I enjoyed the Latin words a lot. The main experience I remember relating to this was
    the summer that our Friends Meeting matched young and old for cross-generational activity. This 70+ year old (then) was matched with a 5 year old who wanted to do some gardening and fill a patch she’d been given in her backyard. We concentrated on plants whose common names referred to animals. She was delighted with lamb’s ears, catnip, pussy willow. We looked at pictures of dog tooth violet because the season was wrong. She called me up on the phone, laughing with delight when the
    goose-neck lysimachia bloomed. We puzzled over foxgloves in my garden but neither of us had any luck getting bloom from our bear’s breeches. What fun!


    That’s such a lovely idea, Chris, and I’d bet it was as memorable for your young friend as it was for you.

  11. Nancy, this is great and I will share on my facebook page. I try to use scientific names. Most people get hung up on the pronunciation but if you just rattle it off like you know what you are talking about everyone will assume you are saying it correctly. Scientific names change out of necessity. We are always learning more about plants, their genetics and their origins. As we learn more, classifications change. Your animal explanations will help us all to remember these names! Thanks!

    I love your comment about the pronunciations, Susan — you’re quite right! Thanks so much for visiting and reading.

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