Derivation of Plant Names: Our Genus Was Pronounced 'Hrododendron'
Theo C. Smid
Rhododendron ponticum L. was introduced into cultivation in England in 1763 and is so common there that many people consider it to be a native plant. In fact, in some towns streets are lined with hedges of crowded shrubs that rise more than 20 feet (6 meters), and some islands are completely covered with the species. The largest bush on record was 281 feet(84.3 meters) in circumference. For many years it was used as rootstock by many nurserymen for more desirable species and hybrids.
When I lived on the third floor of an apartment building near the Caldecott Tunnel one of my sons delivered to me an old boxed Rhododendron 'Cornubia' that had been growing elsewhere for many years. The next spring I received many inquiries about the plant on my balcony with brilliant red and purple blooms. Examining the plant I discovered that the rootstock had produced a large branch that was blooming. I managed to remove that branch without damaging the 'Cornubia'. The history of the name of the rootstock, Rhododendron ponticum, has a long history as do the names of many other plants we grow in our gardens.
Rhododendron ponticum is named for a particular place of its growth, Pontus, a mountainous region of Turkey north of Cappadocia and west of Armenia. In Anabasis, Book IV, an account of the Greek army's retreat from fighting the Persians, Xenophonon (c. 430 - c. 360 B.C.) described a misadventure with this species that his soldiers experienced. “In the villages where they rested there was no sustenance for them. But they found many beehives in the area and promptly ate some combs from them. All not only became delirious, but also vomited, and it passed through them downwards...and no one was able to stand straight. But those having eaten little very much resembled being drunk. But those having eaten much resembled those being mad, and also resembled those dying. Many indeed lay on the ground as though rout had taken place and the dejection was great. But on the next day no one had died. They recovered their senses about the same hour they had lost them, and on the third and fourth days they got up as if from taking physic. Hence they proceeded two days march, making seven parasangs (parasang from Persian parsang, which equals 30 stadia in length) and came to the sea at Trapezus, a populous Greek city, where they remained about 30 days. The Greeks treated them hospitably and gave them oxen, barley-meal and wine.”
Linnaeus (1707-1778). An "L." after the plant name represents Latinized "Linnaeus" for Carol von Linne, Swedish botanist who entered the University of Lund, where the physician to the king encouraged him. In 1728 he entered the University of Upsala, where he undertook supervision of the botanic garden. However, he was sent on a journey of 4,000 miles through Lapland, the result of which was reported in Flora Laponica, 1737. Next he went to Holland to study medicine and took a doctor of medicine degree. He became professor of medicine in Upsala, but he exchanged it for botany. It was said that "Linnaeus found biology a chaos and in it a cosmos." When he started at Upsala there were 500 students in botany, but his fame increased the enrollment to 1,500 students from around the world. He established a principle for the definition of genera and species in the sciences under binomial nomenclature, best exemplified in his Species Plantarum, 1753, the chief of his 180 publications. Since Greek was a standard in the sciences of the time, we can assume that he read Anabasis in the original.
Pallas (36 B.C.-A.D. 37). As the Roman legions continued their conquests in the East they brought back to Rome more slaves, including the educated and professional, who were employed in the household, frequently under salary. Often these slaves saved in order to purchase their freedom, called "manumission."
Pallas was the most famous and powerful of freedmen. An ex-slave of Emperor Claudius, he was voted ornamenta praetoria by the Senate and offered a sum of money, which he refused. His wealth, success, and arrogant temper made him unpopular. He was very rich.
After his accession, Nero, who had his own mother killed, had Pallas executed because of his wealth and power but by his tutor, Anicetus, himself a freedman and prefect of the fleet at Misenum in the northern Bay of Naples.
Pliny the Younger (c. A.D. 61 -114). Pliny adopted the nephew of the great encyclopedist Pliny the Elder (A.D. 9-79). When Vesuvius erupted the inquisitous uncle climbed higher on the slope and was killed. The nephew's account of these events, in a letter to Tacitus, has provided us with a vivid description of the catastrophe.
Publius Virgilius Maro (70-19 B.C.). Between 42 and 37 B.C., while living on an estate near his birthplace in Mantua, Virgil composed the Bucolics, which he called Boulokolika or Pastorals, the title taken from Theocritus, the Greek poet, in four books which were highly influential in the cultivation of plants for hundreds of years throughout the Middle Ages. The first book deals with the cultivation of crops, the second with that of fruit trees, the third with farm animals, including horses, and the fourth with beekeeping. Since beekeeping remained important for the propagation of plants and the creation of honey, this last book continued to be very popular. In fact, Virgil is said to have earned his living as a beekeeper while young. The following genera names are not only found in Vigil's writing1 but all of them have an "L." after their listing in Hortus Third (spelling is from Hortus Third): Abies, Acer, Achillea, Aesculus, Ainus, Anemone, Apium, Arbutus, Aster, Avena, Bellium, Buxus, Carduus, Centaurea, Cornus, Corylus, Crocus, Cucumis, Cupressus, Danae, Daphne, Fagus, Fraxinus, Hedera, Helleborus, Heliconia, Hordeum, Hyacinthus, Ilex, Impatiens, Iris, Laurus, Lilium, Lotus, Lupinus, Malus, Mirabilis, Musa, Myrtus, Narcissus, Olea, Paeonia, Papaver, Paris, Phoenix, Phyllodoce, Pinus, Platanus, Poa, Populus, Prunus, Punica, Quercus, Rosa, Rubus, Salix, Sorbus, Tithonia, Ulmus, Vaccinium, Verbena, Viola, Vitis.
Theophrastus (372-285 B.C.). A philosopher and botanist, Theophrastus was born on Lesbos, son of a wealthy fuller, and went to Athens and attended some late lectures by Plato. He became a pupil of Aristotle, a peripatetic. When Aristotle followed Alexander the Great, Theophrastus lectured. Up to 2,000 students were said to have attended his lectures. In his Enquiry into Plants he had a classification and description of plants in which he followed the biological principles of Aristotle to build up the first system of botany (see Table 1).
Table 1. From Theophrastus' Enquiry into Plants, Loeb Classical Library, 1916, showing the Greek origin of current nomenclature (as found in Hortus Third). Sometimes it is not the name of the genus but that of the species that corresponds. agnos Vitex agnus-castus krokos Crocus anchusa Anchusa kuklaminos Cyclamen adianton Adiantum krataigos Crataegus akantha Acanthus kuminon Cuminum akoniton Aconitum kuparritos Cupressus amugdale Prunus amygdalus kupeiron Cyperus anemone Anemone koneion Conium anethon Anthemis lathuros Lathyrus antirranon Antirrhinum linon Linum aristolochia Aristolochia luchnis Lychnis aron Arum melissaphulon Melissa asteriskos Aster amellus mespile Melissa asparagos Asparagus milax Smilax asphodelos Asphodelus murtos Myrtus daukos Daucus markossos Narcissus daphne Daphne origanos Origanum diktamnon Origanum dictamnus pisos Pisum drupis Drypis platanos Platanus elix Hedera helix poa Poa elleborus Helleborus polion Teucrium polium euonumos Euonymus polupodion Polypodium eliotropon Heliotropium puxos Buxus eruggion Eryngium ramnos Rhamnus iris Iris raphanis Raphanus kapparis Capparis rodon Rosa kentaurion Centuarea selinon Celery kinnamomon Cinnamomum sesamon Sesamum kisthos Cistus smurna Myrrhis kichorion Cichorium phlox Phlox knekos Cnicus phoinix Phoenix korrianon Coriandrum
Although about two centuries separated the Greek and the Roman, both dealt with Mediterranean plants and both lists are about equal in number. Perhaps one chief difference in the languages should be noted. P and p represent r in English. Undoubtedly Virgil consulted the Enquiry into Plants, which became the standard botanical text. My unabridged Greek-English Lexicon, by Liddell and Scott, from the German Francis Passow, was published in 1846 by Harper & Brothers in New York and states that a B was often put before p, but more often it was preceded by pro: before or early. However, if p begins a word it is preceded by (,) called the "rough breathing" and aspirated as h. Since the word "rhododendron" consists of two very common words, "rose" and "tree", the first of these is "rose" and begins with p, pronounced "hrodon"; the genus name, therefore, was pronounced "hrododendron."
1 All found in Virgil's concordance, 959 ff, University of Minnesota, in San Jose State University library, obtained by ILL Hayward Public Library.
Theo Smid, a member of the California Chapter, passed away May 21, 1999. He was an avid student of language, especially botanical nomenclature. He contributed a series of articles for the Journal titled "Names of Plants," beginning in the April 1988 issue.