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).
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…
…and into the 1930s, at least…
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.)
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).
But then there’s English daisy (Bellis perennis), which should probably should be Bellis biennis instead.
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.”
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).
One more in the lifespan category: trimestris–“three months”–as in the botanical name for annual mallow (Lavatera trimestris).
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.
Serotina, serotinus, and serotinum (from serus, Latin for “late”) can similarly refer to a plant that blooms late in the growing season…
…or it can indicate a species or selection that blooms later than its relatives.
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.
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.
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.
And then there’s summer–aestivalis or aestivale–as in aestivation (summer dormancy), or in summer grape (Vitis aestivalis).
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).