Posted on 7 Comments

What’s in a Name? Body Talk

Salpiglossis variablis

We’re finally seeing a few signs of the growing season starting here in Pennsylvania, but there are still several more days before spring officially arrives, so I’ll indulge now in one of my favorite winter topics: botanical nomenclature. One subject I haven’t covered yet is plant names that relate to the body parts of all kinds of critters, including people. Usually there’s some relation between the body part and the shape or texture of the flower, leaf, or some other structure, but sometimes it’s a clue to the plant’s historical use.

Most, if not all, of these will be obvious to those of you who work in the medical field, and I’m sure all of you will recognize at least some of these. It’s not an exhaustive list, as I couldn’t find plant-name examples for all body parts (feel free to speak up if you know of any I missed), and I deliberately left out some parts to keep things…um…safe for all readers. I’ll warn you now, this is a long one, so if nomenclature isn’t your thing, maybe you’d rather just scroll through the pictures and catch the bit of news at the end.

Still here? Ok, then, working roughly from head to hoof…

Persicaria capitata at

With so many flowerheads, seedheads, and individual blooms and seeds that have a head-like placement or shape, genus names and specific epithets that include “caput-,” “capit-,” or “cephal” (from the Latin caput and cephalicus and Greek kephale) are quite common. It’s no challenge to guess how pink knotweed (Persicaria capitata, above) and round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata, below) got their names, for instance.

Lespedeza capitata at

It’s also easy to imagine what the air plant Tillandsia caput-medusae looks like just from the name (yep, like a hairdo of writhing reptiles). A few more common examples include Cephalotaxus (Chinese plum yew), Cephalanthus occidentalis (buttonbush, below)…

Cephalanthus occidentalis at

Dracocephalum moldavica (Moldavian dragon’s head, below)…

Dracocephalum moldavica at

…or Cephalaria gigantea (giant scabious, below).

Cephalaria gigantea at

There’s even a group name—Brassica oleracea Acephala Group—for cabbage-family members that don’t form a distinct head, such as collard greens, kales, and couve tronchuda (below).

Couve tronchuda at

Moving down to the eyes (oculi, or oculus for a single eye), conifer lovers probably already know ‘Oculis-draconis’ as the cultivar name for dragon’s eye selections of both Pinus densiflora (Japanese red pine) and P. thunbergii (Japanese black pine)—coming from the eye-like pattern produced by the color banding on the needles when you look at a branch straight on. There’s also Lychnis coronaria Oculata Group: a name used for rose campion plants that have pink-eyed white blossoms instead of solid white or magenta blooms. (They’re also sold under the more romantic name of ‘Angel’s Blush’).

Cilium (Latin for eyelash) and blepharon (Greek for eyelid) sometimes appear in the botanical names of plants that have parts edged with hairs, in the same way that eyelids are fringed with eyelashes. Salvia blepharophylla (commonly known as eyelash sage), with an edging of fine hairs on the foliage, is one obvious example; another is Habenaria [now Plantathera] blephariglottis (white fringed orchid, with a fringed tongue in each flower).

Habenaria blephariglottis

Ciliatus, ciliatum, ciliata, and ciliaris show up in lots of plants names: Plectranthus ciliatus (speckled or eyelash spur flower), Lysimachia cilata (fringed loosestrife), Bergenia ciliata (hairy bergenia), and Erica ciliaris (Dorset or fringe-leaved heath) are just a few. Another eye-related term you may have already run across is lacrima or lachryma (Latin for tear), as in Coix lacryma-jobi (Job’s tears, below).

Coix lacryma-jobi at

Botanists who saw a likeness between leaf shapes and animal ears sometimes based the names they came up with on auris (Latin for ear) or ous or otis (Greek for ear), as in Primula auricula (sometimes known as bear’s ear), Coreopsis auriculata (mouse-ear chickweed), Ficus auriculata (elephant-ear fig), Leonotis (lion’s ears), and Myosotis (forget-me-nots or mouse ears, below).

Myosotis sylvatica 'Ultrmarine' at

If you suffer from rhinitis—a stuffy or runny nose—or post-nasal drip, you can easily remember that plant names that include rhinus or nasus have something to do with noses. The genus name for snapdragons—Antirrhinum (from the Greek anti, which can mean “equivalent to” as well as “against,” and rhinum, or nose)—came about because someone apparently thought the flowers (or maybe the seedpods?) look nose-like. Below is Antirrhinum majus ‘Black Prince’. You can decide for yourself if you see the noses.

Antirrhinum majus 'Black Prince' at

And if you’ve ever scrunched up your nose after nibbling on the spicy leaves of Nasturtium officinale (watercress) or nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus, below), you can easily relate to “nasturtium” as “nose-twisting” (nasus + tortum).

Tropaeolum majus (nasturtium) at

There’s also rostrum, for beak, bill, or snout, as in Carex rostrata (beaked sedge) or Yucca rostrata (beaked yucca).

Moving down to the mouth—os in Latin and stoma in Greek—there’s Oscularia, a succulent with leaves that look something like toothed, open mouths, and Melostoma, tropical shrubs with fruits that may turn your mouth purple-black if you eat the berries.

Lip (labium in Latin and cheilos in Greek) shows up in Labiatae—the old name for the mint family, with flowers usually divided into lips—as well as Cheilanthes (lip ferns).

A resemblance to a tongue (glossum)—mostly where leaves or petals are concerned—is evident in the genus name Cynoglossum (hound’s tongues). And then there’s the double-dental Odontoglossum (from the Greek odon, for teeth, plus glossum): the genus name for a group of orchids with tooth-like structures on the tongue-like lip of the flower. Odon and dens or dentis (Latin for tooth) appear in many other plant names, too, mostly to indicate toothed edges on the leaves or petals, but sometimes for other tooth-like parts. Dentaria (the toothworts), Pelargonium denticulatum (pine-scented or tooth-leaved geranium), and Erythronium dens-canis (dog-tooth violet) are just a few examples.

Dentaria diphylla

For the neck or throat (trachea or trachia), think of Campanula trachelium, Trachelospermum, and Trachelium (throatwort; below is Trachelium caeruleum ‘Black Knight’). In these cases, the reference is usually to their historical use as remedies for sore throats.

Trachelium caeruleum 'Black Knight' at

You’ve probably already run across the term “axil” at some point, as in “leaf axil”: the angle between a leaf or leaf stalk and the stem. Derived from axilla—Latin for the armpit—it also appears in botanical names, such as Leucothoe axillaris and Muehlenbeckia axillaris, both of which produce their flowers in the leaf axils.

Moving down to the belly, there’s umbilicus and omphalos, the Latin and Greek words for the navel, as in the two genera commonly known as navelworts: Omphalodes (which apparently get their name from their seeds) and Umbilicus rupestris (due to the dimpled center on each rounded leaf).

Omphalodes luciliae

Crus—Latin for “leg”—appears in Crataegus crus-galli (leg + gallus, Latin for a male chicken: a cock or rooster). In this case, the common name of cockspur hawthorn actually tells you more: the name refers to long spines that supposedly resemble the spurs on the lower legs of a rooster.

Crataegus crus-galli

Genu—Latin for knee—appears in specific epithet for the wildflower Angelica genuflexa, commonly known as kneeling angelica due to the backward-bending leaf stalk.

Examples abound for plants with foot references in their name. The Latin pes and pedes and the Greek pous and podos show up in several prefixes and suffixes, producing names such as ped- (Pedilanthus), pes-, and pod- (Podophyllum), and suffixes, including -pod, -podium, -pes, and -pus.

Podophyllum peltatum

  • Podocarpus (foot + fruit: with fleshy fruits that from on top of short, thick, foot-like stalks)
  • Podophyllum (foot + leaf: with leaves that look something like a duck’s foot, if you use your imagination)
  • Melampodium (black + foot: commonly known as blackfoot daisy)
  • Streptopus (foot + twisted, though it’s actually the stalk that is twisted)
  • pedata (as in Viola pedata, commonly known as bird’s foot violet)
  • ornithopoda (bird + foot, as in Carex ornithopoda, commonly called bird’s foot sedge)

Viola pedata

The Greek cheir, for hand, shows up in Cheiranthus (wallflowers), apparently to indicate their historical use in hand-held bouquets.

From digitatus and daktulos, the Latin and Greek words for fingers or toes, we get names with digit- and dactyl- or -dactyl, such as Digitalis (foxgloves, for the shape of their individual flowers), Digitaria (crabgrasses, with seedheads that have finger-like branches), and Tripsacum dactyloides (eastern gamagrass, with finger-like flower spikes; below).

Tripsacum dactyloides at

Structures at other extremities that show up in some plant names include…

  • Horn or antler (cornu in Latin and keras or kerat in Greek): Cornus (apparently because of the hard, strong wood), Viola cornuta (horned violet), Ceratotheca (South African foxglove, with sharply horned seedpods), Ceratostigma (leadworts, with antler-like branching at the end of the stigma; below is Ceratostigma willmottianum ‘My Love’)

Ceratostigma willmottianum 'My Love' at

  • Tail (cauda in Latin): Amaranthus caudatus (love-lies-bleeding, with tail-like flower clusters), Asarum caudatum (long-tailed wild ginger, with long tails on the flowers)

Amaranthus caudatus at

  • Wing (penna in Latin and pteron in Greek): Stipa pennata (feather grass), Ptelea trifoliata (wafer ash or wing seed; below), Rosa pteracantha (wingthorn rose)

Ptelea trifoliata 'Aurea' seeds at

  • Hoof, claw, or nail (ungula in Latin): Vigna unguiculata (cowpea; apparently whoever named it saw some sort of claw-like structure in the flower)

Latin and Greek words for coverings that appear on the outside of the body frequently appear in plant names, too.

  • Hair (capillus in Latin and koma, thrix, and trichos in Greek): Muhlenbergia capillaris (hairy-awn or pink muhly grass; below), Adiantum capillus-veneris (maidenhair fern), Carex comans (New Zealand hair sedge), Kochia scoparia f. trichophylla (burning bush; the hair reference is probably due to the thread-like leaves)

Muhlenbergia capillaris at

  • Wool (lanatus in Latin and erion in Greek): Salix lanata (woolly willow), Eriophyllum lanatum (woolly sunflower)
  • Beard (barba in Latin and pogon in Greek): Penstemon barbatus (beard-lip beardtongue), Andropogon (beard grasses; below is Andropogon virginicus [broomsedge])

Andropogon virginicus at

  • Skin, hide, flesh (cutis, caro, and carnis in Latin and derma and sarx in Greek): Melaleuca cuticularis (saltwater paperbark), Pelargonium carnosum (a geranium with fleshy stalks), Sarcococca (sweet box, with fleshy fruits; below), Dermatophyllum

Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis at

  • Scale (squama in Latin and lepis in Greek): Juniperus squamata (with scale-like adult leaves), Sporobolus heterolepis (with scale-like structures in the flowers)
  • Feather (penna and pinnatus—for winged—in Latin and ptilon in Greek): Rodgersia pinnata (with leaves that are divided like a feather; below), Ptilotus (with feathery flowers)

Rodgersia pinnata at

And, we can’t forget about organs and other structures inside the body, such as…

  • Heart (cor in Latin and kardia in Greek): Houttuynia cordata (heart-leaved houttuynia), Cardiospermum (love-in-a-puff or heartseed, with a white heart on each black seed), Cardiocrinum (Himalayan lilies, with heart-shaped leaves; below)

Cardiocrinum cordatum leaf at

  • Lung (pulmo in Latin and pneumon in Greek): Pulmonaria (lungwort, for its historical use as a lung remedy, based on its supposed resemblance to a damaged lung; below is ‘Mrs. Moon’), Gentiana pneumonanthe (no clear reason for the lung-related epithet on this one!)

Pulmonaria saccharata 'Mrs. Moon' at

  • Rib (costa in Latin): Arisaema costatum (a Jack-in-the-pulpit with prominent ribs on the undersides of the leaves), Betula costata (ribbed-leaved birch)
  • Belly or stomach (venter in Latin and gaster in Greek) : Bambusa ventricosa (Buddha’s belly bamboo), Hosta ventricosa (something to do with a structure within the flower, apparently), Gastrococcos crispa (Cuban belly palm, with a swelling in the middle of its trunk)
  • Liver (hepar in Greek): Hepatica (sometimes called liverleafs or liverworts, for the historical use as a liver remedy; below is Hepatica americana)

Hepatica americana at

  • Kidneys (renes in Latin and nephros in Greek): Cercis reniformis (redbud, with kidney-shaped leaves), Nephrolepis (including Boston fern; with a kidney-shaped covering over each spore-producing structure)
  • Bladder (vesica in Latin and kustis in Greek): Helleborus vesicarius (with inflated seedpods), Carex vesicaria (lesser bladder sedge), Cystopteris (bladder fern), Echinocystis lobata (climbing wild cucumber, with spiny, inflated fruits)

Echinocystus lobata

  • Blood (sanguis in Latin and haima in Greek): Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot), Rumex sanguineus (bloody dock, below), Haemanthus sanguineus (blood lily)

Rumex sanguineus at

  • Vein (varix and varicosum in Latin and phleb in Greek): Oncidium varicosum (an orchid that apparently has swollen, vein-like parts in the flower), Phlebodium aureum (rabbit’s foot fern, with distinctive veining on the fronds)

Oncidium varicosum

  • Nerve (nervus in Latin and neuron in Greek): Sanchezia nervosa (with prominent leaf “nerves”; below), Dichanthelium neuranthum (nerve-flowered witch grass)

Sanchezia nervosa at

  • Bone (os in Latin and osteon in Greek): Osmunda (flowering ferns, apparently once used as a remedy for bone-related problems), Ostrya (hop hornbeams, with bone-hard wood), Osteospermum (African daisies, with hard seeds)

Ostrya virginiana

  • Joint (articulus in Latin and arthron in Greek): Oxalis articulata (jointed woodsorrel), Arthropodium (New Zealand rock lilies, with jointed flower stems)

Ok, I think we’ve all had enough of a nomenclature lesson until next winter! Whew.

On a lighter note, this spring is bringing more than beautiful blooms: it’s time for lots of new garden books, too. Fellow blogger Dee Nash of Red Dirt Ramblings recently released her first book, The 20-30 Something Garden Guide: A No-Fuss, Down and Dirty, Gardening 101 for Anyone Who Wants to Grow Stuff. Dee sent me a gift copy a few weeks ago, and flipping through its pages made me wish I’d had such a friendly and encouraging guide when I was a new gardener. (In fact, it set me off on a long post about the books I started with nearly 30 years ago, which then turned into my rambling thoughts about what turns ordinary people into plant-obsessed gardeners. Be glad that I decided to spare you that and flatten you with nomenclature instead!) Anyway, if you have a non-gardening friend or family member you’d like to lure over to the dark side–or rather, the green side–Dee’s book could be a great gift for them.

Other garden bloggers who have new books this spring include Kris Greene of the Blithewold blog (her book Plantiful includes ideas for using vigorous and self-sowing plants to fill space in your garden, as well as tips for overwintering tender perennials) and Shenandoah Kepler of Fleeting Architecture (her e-book A Sensual Garden addresses ways to make more of visual appeal, scents, sounds, tastes, and textures in our gardens). In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t yet read Kris’ book, but I did get to see a pre-release review copy of Shen’s e-book.

Five-Plant Gardens CoverI’m very pleased to announce that Rob Cardillo and I also have a new book out this month, called Five-Plant Gardens: 52 Ways to Grow a Perennial Garden with Just Five Plants. (Just to be clear: that’s five different plants, not five plants in total.) Each of the plans is small enough to dig and plant in just a few days, with enough plants to be interesting but not so many as to be overwhelming for a new gardener. The perennials included aren’t the most cutting-edge new releases, but readily available, time-tested cultivars that should be easy to find and reasonably priced. There’s also a care calendar for each plan to tell what’s going on in each season and what kind of care the garden needs to look its best.

If you’re relatively new to gardening yourself and need some inspiration, or if you know someone you’d like to inspire with simple plans for manageable starter perennial gardens, you can get the print version of Five-Plant Gardens on Amazon, directly from Storey Publishing, or through lots of other booksellers.


Illustration Sources

  • Alpine Plants by A.J. Macself, line drawings by G.E. Lee  (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923): Omphalodes luciliae
  • Fieldbook of American Wild Flowers by F. Schuyler Mathews (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1911): Dentaria diphylla, Viola pedata, Echinocystis lobata
  • The Garden in Color by Louise Beebe Wilder (The William Byrd Press, Inc., 1937): Salpiglossis variabilis, Oncidium varicosum
  • Nature’s Garden by Neltje Blanchan, colored plates by Henry Troth and A.R. Dugmore (Doubleday, Page & Company, 1915): Habenaria blephariglottis, Podophyllum peltatum
  • Pennsylvania Trees by Joseph S. Illick (Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters, 1928): Crataegus crus-galli, Ostrya virginiana
Posted on 7 Comments

7 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Body Talk

  1. Oh, Nan, I share your passion! In fact, I found myself scrolling back and forth through your post, looking for names that quickly came to mind…. you had them all LOL.

    Congratulations on your new book! I am not buying any books until we move – we are relocating to Napa, CA in about 6 weeks, and the cost to move books is staggering. (Books are heavy, and moving cross country, the fee charged is based on the weight of whatever is packed in the moving van.) But that will be my VERY FIRST housewarming present to myself. ;) My guess is that it will come in very handy as we lay out new beds, (And yes, we’ll post about it on our blog.) I will say, it’s going to be hard to beat your “Perennial Care Manual” which is still my all-time favorite gardening book!

    We are leaving our gorgeous gardens, yes. Steve was offered a wonderful position at Napa State Hospital so we will be starting over, designing, building and planting new gardens. It’s bitter sweet to leave what we have but we are looking forward to new beginnings.

    Warm regards,


    Wow, Cathy! That’s huge news. I’m so glad for the exciting new opportunity for Steve, and for you too: a whole new climate and palette of plants to learn. Whoever buys your garden (and house) is going to be very lucky!

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post; I know you’re another nomenclature nerd. And thanks for the kind words about the books. Best of luck with your move. I’ll be checking your blog for updates, though I’m sure it’ll be quite a while before you get a chance to post after settling in.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for the great lesson in nomenclature. Isn’t Latin such a fascinating language?

    I studied Latin in uni, just enough to be able to translate lyrics for dh (stabat mater, dixit dominus, etc.). Who would have thought all those years of reading Virgil and Horace can actually be relevant in the world of gardening?

    Congrats on the new book! What a clever way to get more people into gardening by introducing them to just a few plants, different combos, etc, to begin with. Sounds like a winner.

    Can’t wait to hear about your next project. Or will you be taking a break from writing this summer? I reckon you’re busy with seed starting at the moment. My seedlings are such a bright and welcoming sight after a long cold winter…

    Good afternoon, Liat. Yes, the Latin roots are fascinating, and the Greek too. Compiling this post was quite the mental workout.

    Rob and I are already halfway through the next book, with the rest to plant and shoot this coming growing season. I think it won’t be out until 2016, though. Now that this post is done, I’m going to indulge in some quality time with my seeds, since it’s still too cold to be working outside. At least the snow is just about gone!

  3. Wonderful Nan!

    The first image on its pinkish background combined with the post title made me think that this was going to be about plant-themed tattoos. :)

    Well, I could think of many worse things to have a tattoo. I’ll let you field that topic on your blog, Alan. Have fun collecting the photos!

    1. Challenge accepted. :)

      Promise you’ll leave me a link when it’s done. That’ll be a must-see.

      Maybe you could start a Garden Bloggers’ Tattoo Day, where everyone posts pics of their horticultural body art? Er, no…never mind.

  4. I´m very familiar with latin names (better on them than the common), so this time I´ve concentrated on the photos. And they are as usual very nice!

    Thanks, Susie. I didn’t think I’d be able to surprise you with anything as far as the Latin names, so I’m happy that you enjoyed the visuals. It was fun getting out my old gardening books and wildflower guides to find suitable illustrations.

  5. What a wonderful surprise to open up the Philadelphia Inquirer this morning and see “Five Easy Plants.”!

    I found your blog and, yes, you “flattened me with nomenclature” but I am ready to get up and out to my garden. Although I don’t have much gardening space in our retirement community, I do have some freedom to work my trowel and arrange container gardens.

    I remember a visit to Pendragon Perennials some years ago and enjoyed the lovely miniature iris I took away from that visit for some time after that.

    I was introduced to “job’s tears” when a Native American Friend gave a me a small packet of tear-shaped seeds as a reminder of the Trail of Tears of the Cherokee tribes who were forced to leave their homes in the 1800s.

    How lovely to hear from you on this rainy March morning, Mrs. Colliver. I too remember your visit. It was an honor to have you as a teacher and then reconnect with you as a fellow gardener. I’m glad to know that you’re still able to keep your hand in with the container gardens. I think it might be safe now to wish you a happy spring. At least it is not snowing today, so there is hope of flowers soon.

    1. Thank you for your gracious response. I look forward to beautiful and informative blogs in the future.
      Happy Gardening,

Comments are closed.