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.
Spotting 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.”
Take “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).
“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).
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]