What’s in a Name? Moments in Time

'SunnySmile'--a dwarf annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus)--with narrowleaf zinnia (Zinnia angustifolia) and 'Sweet Caroline Bronze' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

‘Sunny Smile’–a dwarf annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus)–with narrowleaf zinnia (Zinnia angustifolia) and ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas)

As it seemed time for a new adventure in the meaning of botanical names, time itself is a tempting topic. A little familiarity with some of the words you might come across can be handy for predicting how a plant might behave in your garden simply by looking at its name.

Even if you don’t have any particular interest in botanical names, you’ve probably already picked up some of the most obvious ones: those relating to the relative persistence or life cycle of a particular plant. Annua, annuus, and annuum usually indicate that the species is an annual: think of Artemisia annua (the fragrant-leaved sweet Annie), for instance, or Helianthus annuus (annual sunflower), or Capsicum annuum (showy-fruited peppers).

With its colorful and flavorful fruits and white-variegated foliage, the annual 'Fish' pepper (Capsicum annuum) is equally at home in vegetable gardens and ornamental plantings. [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

With its colorful and flavorful fruits and white-variegated foliage, the annual ‘Fish’ pepper (Capsicum annuum) is equally at home in vegetable gardens and ornamental plantings.

Similarly, biennis and bienne normally indicate plants that produce only foliage the first year and flowers the second: think of common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) and biennial beeblossom (Gaura biennis), for example. I have to use qualifiers like “usually” and “normally” because of one well-known exception: honesty or money plant. Formerly (and accurately) known as Lunaria biennis from way back…

Lunaria entry in Henderson's Handbook of Plants, 1881

From Henderson’s Handbook of Plants (Peter Henderson & Company, 35 Cortlandt Street, New York, NY; 1881)

…and into the 1930s, at least…

Honesty/Lunaria entry from Dreer's Garden Book 1933 (Henry A. Dreer, 1306 Spring Garden St. Philadelphia, PA.)

From Dreer’s Garden Book 1933 (Henry A. Dreer, 1306 Spring Garden St. Philadelphia, PA)

But somewhere between then and 1976, when Hortus III was published, the more commonly used name had become Lunaria annua, for some reason I have yet to figure out. It’s one of those quirky things you come to accept in the wonderful world of botanical nomenclature.

(As a side note to the side note: The above references are scanned from my own small collection of old gardening books and catalogs. Complete versions of both–and many other exquisite old seed lists, nursery catalogs, and gardening books–are available to view online or download through the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Though the experience of on-screen viewing lacks the charm of holding an old book in hand, the library is an amazing resource if you’re ever trying to research old varieties, or if you simply enjoy browsing through old horticultural references. As a place to start, I suggest the Seed & Nursery Catalogs collection.)

The Biodiversity Hertiage Library: A magnificent online collection of old floras, faunas, and related agricultural, horticultural, and zoological references!Now, going back to time-related botanical terms…just as there’s annua for annual and biennis for biennial, perenne (or perennis) relates to plants that usually behave as perennials (returning for more than two years), such as the beautiful blue perennial flax (Linum perenne).

Perennial flax (Linum perenne) with Euphorbia palustris 'Zauberflote'; Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield

Perennial flax (Linum perenne) with Euphorbia palustris ‘Zauberflote’

But then there’s English daisy (Bellis perennis), which should probably should be Bellis biennis instead.

English daisy (<em>Bellis perennis</em>) is typically treated like a biennial even though, as its botanical name suggests, it can return from the same roots for at least another year or two. (This one is 'Rose Bicolor'.) [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

English daisy (Bellis perennis) is typically treated like a biennial even though, as its botanical name suggests, it can return from the same roots for at least another year or two. (This one is ‘Rose Bicolor’.)

There are also a couple of other epithets that can indicate a plant may be perennial, or at least long-lasting, long-blooming, or persistent in some other way. Rediviva, meaning renewed or reborn, appears in Lunaria rediviva, the botanical name of the lesser known perennial version of honesty or money plant. A related term that you’ll see far more often is semper: Latin for “always” or “ever.”

Semperflorens ("always flowering"), as in the long-blooming alpine strawberry (Fragraia vesca var. semperflorens 'White Soul'); Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield

Semperflorens (“always flowering”), as in the long-blooming alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca var. semperflorens ‘White Soul’)

Sempervirens ("always green"), as in the evergreen 'Latifolia Maculata' boxwood (Buxus sempervirens); Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield

Sempervirens (“always green”), as in the evergreen ‘Latifolia Maculata’ boxwood (Buxus sempervirens)

Sempervivum ("always alive"): the genus name for the tough-to-kill hens-and-chicks; Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield

Sempervivum (“always alive”): the genus name for the tough-to-kill hens-and-chicks

In contrast, there’s fugax, or fleeting–a tendency to wither quickly–as in Melica fugax (little oniongrass), and ephemerum–lasting only a short time–as in Lysimachia ephemerum (silver loosestrife).

To be honest, I can't figure out what's ephemeral about <em>Lysimachia ephemerum</em> (silver loosestrife): certainly not its beautiful gray-blue foliage, dainty white flowers, or slender, elegant spikes. [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

To be honest, I can’t figure out what’s ephemeral about Lysimachia ephemerum (silver loosestrife): certainly not its beautiful gray-blue foliage, dainty white flowers, or slender, elegant spikes.

One more in the lifespan category: trimestris–“three months”–as in the botanical name for annual mallow (Lavatera trimestris).

I've never timed the bloom period of annual mallow (Lavatera trimestris) exactly, but it's fair to say that you can expect a good trimester of large pink flowers. [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

I’ve never timed the bloom period of annual mallow (Lavatera trimestris) exactly, but it’s fair to say that you can expect a good trimester of large pink flowers.

Other time-related terms refer to the seasons. Autumnalis, or autumnale, is an obvious reference to autumn. ‘Autumnalis’ Higan cherry (Prunus subhirtella), for instance, flowers in spring, as the straight species does, but it also opens some of its pink blossoms in fall.

The fall flowers of the appropriately named autumn crocus (Crocus autumnale)--shown here with the coppery foliage of 'Sedona' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) and chartreusy 'Angelina' sedum (Sedum rupestre)--are a lovely surprise in the late-season garden. [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

The fall flowers of the appropriately named autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale)–shown here with the coppery foliage of ‘Sedona’ coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) and chartreusy ‘Angelina’ sedum (Sedum rupestre)–are a lovely surprise in the late-season garden.

Serotina, serotinus, and serotinum (from serus, Latin for “late”) can similarly refer to a plant that blooms late in the growing season…

Leucanthemella serotina--sometimes called giant daisy--is indeed a late bloomer, flowering in September and October. Here, it's mingling with the equally tall flowers of Japanese burnet (Sanguisorba tenuifolia 'Purpurea'). [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

Leucanthemella serotina–sometimes called giant daisy–is indeed a late bloomer, flowering in September and October. Here, it’s mingling with the equally tall flowers of Japanese burnet (Sanguisorba tenuifolia ‘Purpurea’).

…or it can indicate a species or selection that blooms later than its relatives.

Commonly--and aptly--known as late Dutch honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum var. serotina usually starts flowering several weeks later than the species, and its wonderfully fragrant blooms continue to open for months. [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

Commonly–and aptly–known as late Dutch honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum var. serotina usually starts flowering several weeks later than the species, and its wonderfully fragrant blooms continue through the rest of the growing season.

Moving on to wintry names, some epithets you’re likely to run across include hymale and hyemalis:  the Latin words for “of winter”–as in Camellia hiemalis, which typically flowers in early winter.

One of the first bulbs to bloom as the snow disappears is winter aconite (Eranthus hyemalis). [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

One of the first bulbs to bloom as the snow disappears is winter aconite (Eranthus hyemalis).

 There’s also praecox, Latin for precocious or early, as in Stachyurus praecox, a deciduous shrub with chains of fragrant yellow flowers in late winter to early spring. Pair praecox with chiemon and anthos, Greek words for winter and flower, and you get Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet): another early-blooming shrub with scented yellow blossoms.

Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox) isn't the very first thyme to flower, but it does tend to bloom relatively early in the growing season, in late spring to early summer. [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox) isn’t the very first thyme to flower, but it does tend to bloom relatively early in the growing season, in late spring to early summer.

Think of the vernal equinox–the formal name for the first day of spring–to remember the Latin verna, vernus, and vernum, as well as vernale and vernalis, for spring.

Hamamelis vernalis--vernal witch hazel--would more appropriately be H. hyemalis or H. praecox, because it often starts flowering in mid-winter, but it's usually still blooming in spring. (This red-flowered selection is 'Washington Park'.) [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

Hamamelis vernalis–vernal witch hazel–would more appropriately be H. hyemalis or H. praecox, because it often starts flowering in mid-winter, but it’s usually still blooming in spring. (This red-flowered selection is ‘Washington Park’.)

Lathyrus vernus--spring vetchling--is much more appropriately named. It flowers at the same time as many other early gems, such as Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus) and lungworts (Pulmonaria). [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

Lathyrus vernus–spring vetchling–is much more appropriately named. It flowers at the same time as many other early gems, such as Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus) and lungworts (Pulmonaria).

And then there’s summer–aestivalis or aestivale–as in aestivation (summer dormancy), or in summer grape (Vitis aestivalis).

Leucojum aestivum is commonly called summer snowflake, even though it usually blooms in spring, just a few weeks after L. vernum (the spring snowflake). [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

Leucojum aestivum is commonly called summer snowflake, even though it usually blooms in spring, just a few weeks after L. vernum (the spring snowflake).

The last group of “timey wimey” terms relates to the time of day. Though I couldn’t find any familiar names with the epithets you might expect for morning (such as the Latin aurorea, auroreus, and auroreum for dawn), Greek words give us the genus name for the bloodroot relative commonly known as dawn poppy or snow poppy: Eomecon (from eos [dawn] + mekon [poppy]).

Heading toward lunchtime…well, there’s meridionalis (or meridonale), which can indicate mid-day, but when you see it in a botanical name, it usually indicates the alternate meaning: southern. The Greek mesembria, for middle-day or noon, appears in the genus name for ice plant–Mesembryanthemum–which was originally thought to bloom only around midday. For afternoon, there’s pomeridianum, as in Chlorogalum pomeridianum, a soaproot that opens its flowers in late afternoon. And if you’re looking for flowers to light up your nighttime garden, keep an eye out for noct- (from nox) and nyct- (from nyx), as in Silene noctiflora (night-flowering catchfly), Cestrum nocturnum (night-flowering jasmine), and Nyctanthes arbor-tristis (Indian night jasmine).

These days, the vine known as moonflower is most often listed botanically as <em>Ipomoea alba</em>: easy to remember and basically informative ("worm-like" + "white," indicating its twining stems and white flowers). But it has many former names too, one of which is rather more elegant and emphasizes its night-blooming nature in a mix of Greek and Latin roots: <em>Calonyction bona-nox</em> (<em>calonyction</em> from "beautiful" + "night" and <em>bona-nox</em> from "good" + "night"). [Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield]

These days, the vine known as moonflower is most often listed botanically as Ipomoea alba: easy to remember and basically informative (“worm-like” + “white,” indicating its twining stems and white flowers). But it has many former names too, one of which is rather more elegant and emphasizes its night-blooming nature in a mix of Greek and Latin roots: Calonyction bona-nox (calonyction from “beautiful” + “night” and bona-nox from “good” + “night”).

24 responses to this post.

  1. Great information!

    Thanks! This is the least popular topic here at Hayefield, but I can’t resist doing a nomenclature post every now and then for the few who enjoy the subject.
    -Nan

    • Posted by Nell on February 16, 2016 at 11:18 am

      I learn something every time. Virginia state Latin B champ in the sixties, decades of botanical Latin since, and I never managed to know what ‘serotina’ means until now. Thanks!

      Yep, that was a new one for me too!
      -Nan

  2. It’s probably one of those plants I’ve glazed over a thousand times and just never found a description or picture that intrigues me, but your picture of Lathyrus vernus has definitely lit up my awareness of it. Now I’ve spent the last twenty minutes researching it wondering how I couldn’t have known about it. Thanks!

    Also, loved the content. I took Latin in highschool and it has always been my favorite language to study –especially in relation to plants.

    Always happy to enable a fellow plant fanatic. It’s a pity that the plants are so hard to find, but you can get seeds from Chiltern or Plant World Seeds.
    -Nan

    • Posted by swolpow on February 21, 2016 at 10:24 am

      A friend gave me a seedling of this plant which I stuck in the ground and forgot about… until the following spring when this large neon purple/pink patch of flowers caught my eye from the kitchen window one morning. “What IS that?” I thought, immediately running out into the garden to see. It’s one of my new faves now… and seems to seed around a bit. It’s also a nitrogen fixer. Really great plant!

      • I giess that makes two of us that had to take a second look to get excited about it. You’re making me very excited now with “seed around a bit.” Thanks for sharing.
        Lovely blog by the way. I’ll definitely do more reading there.

  3. A fun lesson in nomenclature beautifully illustrated – a great way to start a snowy winter day!

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Lynn. It’s still snowy on this side of PA too–but maybe not for long.
    -Nan

  4. Posted by Ed Colahan on February 15, 2016 at 8:27 am

    I’ll cast another vote for the nomenclature posts! I think the botanical names are fascinating, and I always appreciate your unfailing attention to that detail in all your posts. A sign of a true plant nerd. :-)

    It’s great to hear that, Ed. Getting newer gardeners to see the value in using botanical names can be a tough sell, but I agree that nomenclature is fascinating in its own right.
    -Nan

  5. Posted by Christine on February 15, 2016 at 8:29 am

    Thank you! It is a great refresher course for me.

    Excellent! Thanks for reading, Christine.
    -Nan

  6. Posted by Barb Pinson on February 15, 2016 at 8:53 am

    Oh I just love this…have always had a little love affair with words and gardening! Thanks so much for posting:)

    Knowing some of the background behind the names makes them all the more intriguing, doesn’t it?
    -Nan

    • Posted by Barb Pinson on February 16, 2016 at 9:33 pm

      Yes, it does. Shared this with some gardening friends…they loved it, too.

      It’s super to hear that; thanks, Barb.
      -Nan

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I always learn something when you choose to share your knowledge. Knowledge gives us power in the garden.

    Thanks, Lisa! The knowledge part is important, and the amusement value of the quirky names is a delight too, just to keep us from taking things too seriously.
    -Nan

  8. I can remember becoming interested in gardening years ago and reading books with few pictures or they were all in black and white. After a while I realized the names were starting to make sense and I was absorbing info without knowing it. I started paying attention after buying a plant with its common name and realizing a few years later it was the wrong plant. Botanical Latin is so important if you care about what you are growing.

    We got your book from Rodale as my husband (Mark Goldbach) has a photo in it. A really terrific book which I will blog about soon. I was sticking post-its all through it with combos I liked using a plant I already have. And so much other useful info in the text and sidebars.

    That’s an excellent observation, Linda: Even if you don’t make a point of learning the botanical names, you can’t help but pick up on them eventually, particularly when they have a connection to words you already know.

    It’s good to hear that the copy of the book arrived already. My thanks to Mark for the photo–and you for the combination!
    -Nan

  9. Posted by Barbara Dashwoood on February 15, 2016 at 10:44 am

    Thanks, Nan. Things I have known, half known and many too lazy or preoccupied to look up. Beautifully and tirelessly executed, as is your want! Barbara. Victoria, BC.

    Ah yes–that’s why I particularly enjoy these posts: Doing the research for the less familiar names is so absorbing. The tricky part is finding the photos to go with them. At least I didn’t have to rely too much on old floras for this one.
    -Nan

  10. Nan, I love this post with all the research and knowledge it contains. With the terrific photos it makes the perfect antidote to another snowy February day.

    Hey there, Marcia. Another snowy day for you too, huh? It’s just starting up here, but it looks like we’re in for a couple of inches this afternoon. After this weekend’s bitter cold, it’ll be interesting to see how things fared once tomorrow’s warmth and rain uncovers the ground. I’m not holding out much hope for the hellebores that were blooming just a few weeks ago.
    -Nan

  11. Posted by Nora on February 15, 2016 at 11:01 am

    I love languages and the Latin lesson is terrific. Keep it up! And just think of the field day you could have with cultivar names the people and places they memorialize. (My Hella Lacy, aka Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Hella Lacy’ (Aster novae-angliae ‘Hella Lacy’) has thrived and been divided!) Might explore the ongoing habit of changing Latin names….grrrrrr. A way to pass the time in the cold, cold days before spring–February is, without doubt, the LONGEST month!

    How wonderful to hear that the aster is happy in its new home! There’s indeed much fertile ground in the area of plants named for people. I think there are already several books that cover many of those stories, including one that came out within the past few years by a well-known garden writer, but the title escapes me at the moment. I’m sure someone here can remind me….
    -Nan

  12. Your photos are so amazing, candy for the soul.

    Thank you, Charlie. I figured people might enjoy some colorful pictures right about now even if they didn’t care about plant names.
    -Nan

  13. I’ll never call my moonflowers Ipomea alba again! Calonyction bona-nox! and I had no idea that Ipomea meant worm-like. How funny is that? “Hypo” means under in Greek, doesn’t it? so maybe Ipomea is the Latin, but related to the fact that worms are usually under the soil? I love your Latin posts. My favourites with the exception of your “If I knew then” post – my all-time favourite post.

    Hi Clark! I knew you’d enjoy this one, even if no one else did. The “worm” part of Ipomoea comes from the Greek ips or ipos, apparently.
    -Nan

  14. Posted by Jan Wirth on February 15, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks so much, Nan. Great post. I love the Latin names and this was great fun.

    My pleasure, Jan; thank *you* for reading and commenting!
    -Nan

    • Posted by Jan Wirth on February 17, 2016 at 10:59 am

      Also, thank you for the reference to the BHL. I was not familiar with it. What an amazing resource.

      Isn’t it fantastic to have so many of those reference materials available to everyone? Imagine all the time it took for the contributors to scan them.
      -Nan

  15. Posted by Chris Nicholson on February 15, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    Never knew when I studied Latin for 5 years over 60 years ago that my main use of it would be in horticulture. Love these posts on scientific names. Almost as much fun as surprising fellow choir members with translations of Latin anthems which are usually
    bloodier than the cleaned up versions! Just got surprised myself here at my computer by a drowsy sting bearing insect rousing unseasonably from somewhere here in our 180 year old house.

    Ow, Chris. One of my favorite things about winter is not having to deal with any bugs and spiders because it’s so cold in here. You just never know, though. Anyway…I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed the post. I imagine you have some great stories from the choir!
    -Nan

  16. That was the most painless lesson in Latin I’ve ever had! And complete with beautiful illustrations too. Thanks Nan!

    Well, isn’t that nice to hear? I appreciate your comment, Kris!
    -Nan

  17. Thanks, Nan. I learned a lot.

    So did I!
    -Nan

  18. Posted by Nell on February 16, 2016 at 11:27 am

    Glad you emphasized the “usually” in the botanical use of ‘annuum’; Capsicum annuum, the species from which most of our culinary chiles and peppers were developed, is actually a (tender) perennial in its native central and south America, but grown as an annual in non-tropical climates. Capsicum chinense (the Scotch bonnet and habañero chiles) isn’t from China, either — all Capsicum species originate in the Americas — but keeps its name because it was the first assigned.

    Yes, you’re quite right, Nell. It’s easy to forget that many of the plants we call annuals up here are actually tender perennials. I’m still stumped by the change from Lunaria biennis to Lunaria annua, but it’s likely for the same reason you gave: It must have been originally named L. annua way, way back.
    -Nan

  19. Posted by Kate Patrick on February 17, 2016 at 9:07 pm

    Nan, as a medical professional steeped in Latin based “medicalese” I love to read about botanic terminology. Awesome post and delicious pictures. Looking forward to reading your new book.

    Kate, with your training, I imagine you have no trouble recognizing 90 percent of the botanical names you run across. It must make working with plants all the more interesting for you. Thanks for reading!
    -Nan

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