JARS v42n2 - Names Of Plants: Sense and Sound

Names Of Plants: Sense and Sound
Theo Smid
Hayward, California

Originally appeared in the California Chapter Newsletter and modified for Journal publication by the author.

"Then began I...to turn into English the book that is named in Latin Pastoralis...one-while word for word, another-while meaning for meaning."
— King Alfred (849-901), Whole Works (Jubilee Edition, 1852), vol. III, p. 64, Preface to the Anglo-Saxon version of the work by Pope Gregory I, called "The Great" (590-604).

Prior to the mid-eighteenth century no generally accepted system for naming plants existed. Not only were different names applied to the same plant, but often phrases of various lengths were used for identification. Carl von Linné abruptly brought order out of polylogos when he established (1) a consistent binomial system of names, (2) the use of terminations in Latin, and (3) decreed rules of usage. In the process he changed his own name to Linnaeus.

The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature provides that scientific names of plants must be Latin or at least be treated as such regardless of their origin. This provision overcomes the problems arising from the use of a multitude of languages and supplies an instrument for international communication. With suitable additions, this system also forms the basis for The International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants .

Contemporary botanists, who are equipped with sophisticated techniques of analysis, are interested in broad groupings that can lead to an understanding of the evolutionary processes which shaped present flora and a more precise relationship within a given taxon. Most of these groups, in reverse direction, are found in magnolias, elegant plants with a 100-million-year history (twice that of rhododendrons): Family Magnoliaceae , Order Magnoliales , Subclass Magnoliidae, Class Magnoliopsida and Division Magnoliophyta . Horticulturists generally do not inquire beyond the family.

The name of a family is formed by taking the stem of a genus within the family and adding -aceae, e.g. Ericaceae . Exceptionally, eight families retain old names that end in -ae: Compositae , Sunflower; Cruciferae , Mustard; Gramineae , Grass; Guttiferae (or Clusiaceae ), Garcinia Family of mostly evergreen trees and shrubs; Labiatae , Mint: Leguminosae , Pea; Palmae , Palm; and Umbelliferae , Carrot or Parsley.

The generic name is a substantive in the nominative singular which may have many sources, the chief of which are:

1. A real person. Hundreds of generic names commemorate the name of a botanist, plant-explorer, naturalist, missionary, gardener, patron of horticulture, botanical artist or a friend of one of the foregoing. Such names are Latinized with a suitable ending, e.g. Kalmia from Kalm and Zinnia from Zinn.

a.  When the person's name ends in a vowel, the letter a is added: Ottoa ; except when the vowel is a; then ea is added: Collaea .

b.  When the person's name ends in a consonant, ia is added: Gerardia ; except when it ends in er; then an a is added: Merendera .

c.  Prefixes indicating "son of", such as Mac, Me, M' and O', are united with the rest of the name: MacLean > Macleania .

d.  A prefix consisting of an article, such as le, el, il, du, dela, should be united to the name: L'Obel > Lobelia .

e.  Van and von are omitted in their country of origin, but are connected with the name in the U.S.: Van Heerd > Vanheerdia , but von Schrank > Schrankia .

Simplicity in such names is recommended, contrary to some old practices, e.g. Swartschonskiechinogammarus .

2.  A mythical person or personification: Adonis , Arethusa and many others.

3.  An ancient Greek or Latin name. Usually Greek words are transliterated into Roman characters, e.g. akanthos > Acanthus but many names retain their original spelling: Daphne .

4.  An attribute of the genus. Generic names often are descriptive, alluding to the form or color of the flowers, leaves or seeds, or to the plant's habitat or place of origin: Arenaria , L. sandy; Spiranthes , Gk. speira , coil + anthos , flower (i.e. a spirally twisted spike). Typically, Greek or Latin words are used in such descriptions.

5.  A completely arbitrary name, e.g. an anagram. A few anagrams are: Alchemilla > Lachemilla , Allum > Milula and Muilla; Arabis > Sibara . Some geographical names have been changed in this way: Jamaica > Jacaima and Bolivia > Lobivia.


In both Greek and Latin the names of plants and trees are feminine, but some names follow the gender of their termination: Acanthus , m.; Centaurium , n. If two or more words are combined, the gender is that of the last one: Coreopsis , f., is composed of koris , m., a tick, + opsis , f., appearance, referring to the seed.

The name Rhododendron , n., needs explanation. It has retained the Greek ending, -on , instead of the usual Latin ending, -um , because, from the late Roman Republic into the Empire, all educated Latins were bilingual (nearly all teachers were Greek) and many words were assimilated intact. Further, semantic changes had occurred in the Greek word for tree. Early on the general word for tree had been drus , f., but later it became the word for the oak (cf. Celtic Druid ) and dendron , n., became the ordinary word for tree.


The rules require that the earliest effective and valid publication of a name is the one accepted. However, there are many exceptions: "in order to avoid disadvantageous changes in the nomenclature of genera, families, and intermediate taxa entailed by the strict application of the rules, and especially of the principle of priority in starting from the dates given in Art. 13, this Code provides...lists of names that are conserved ( nomina conservanda ) and must be retained as useful exceptions. Conservation aims at retention of these generic names which best serve stability of nomenclature..."Article 14.

Genera in Ericaceae so listed are Arctostaphylos Adanson, Cavendishia Lindley, Chamaedaphne Moench, Daboecia D. Don, Caylussacia , Kunth in Humboldt, Bonpland et Kunth, Loiseleuria Desvaux, Lyonia Nuttall, Pernettya Gaudichaud in Mirbel and Rhodothamnus H.G.L. Reichenbach in Mossier. Among the hundreds of others are: Bletilla , Cedrus , Cunninghamia , Douglasia , Mammilaria , Miltonia , Nothofagus , Sequoia and Watsonia .


The specific name or epithet has its origin in much the same sources as the generic name. It can be commemorative of a person, descriptive or geographic.

In Rhododendron , of 668 specific names checked, 260 are Latin, 151 Greek, 146 commemorative and 111 geographical (chiefly Chinese and Japanese). Some are hybrids, e.g. chamaethomsonii .

A specific name may be a noun in the genitive case (when it commemorates a person), an adjective (descriptive), or a noun in apposition, e.g. -cola , dweller.

1.  Genitive. A masculine name adds -us or -ius and is changed to the genitive of the second declension, which ends in -i. All of the following examples are from Rhododendron :

F. Bailey > Baileyus > baileyi
P. Cavalerie > Cavalerieus > cavaleriei
H. Falconer > Falconerus > falconeri
R. Fortune > Fortuneus > fortunei
E. Madden > Maddenius > maddenii

Feminine names are in the first declension, of which the genitive ends in -ae:

Anna > annae
Mary Ames > amesiae
Countess of Dalhousie > dalhousiae
Mrs. A. D. Parry > johnstoneanum Parryae Group

In Latin, nauta , sailor, is a rare masculine noun in the first declension. Accordingly,

R. Kanehira > kanehirae (not -ai )
G.Nakahara > nakaharae (not -ai ) Occasionally the commemoration applies to more than one person; in which case the plural genitive is used: Meliosma veitchiorum , m. pl., of the men of the Veitch Nursery. The feminine plural would end in -arum .

2.  Adjectives. An adjective agrees with the subject in case, gender and number. In Latin there are five principal cases and five declensions. However, the names of plants, standing alone, are in the nominative singular. Adjectives have three declensions.

I.  These modify feminine nouns: Abelia floribunda . In this instance a large caveat must be given. Although nearly all Latin nouns ending in -a are feminine, many names of plants bearing Greek names ending in -a are neuter: Aethionema pulchellum , Ceratostigma willmottianum (although this Willmott was named Ellen Ann).
II.  These are masculine: Agapanthus africanus ; or neuter: Rhododendron afghanicum .
III.  In this declension there are three kinds of adjectives:

a.  Those with three forms: silvestris , f.; silvestre , n.
b.  Those with two forms: grandis , m. & F.; grande , n.
c.  Adjectives with only one form regardless of gender: arborescens , discolor , fulgens , praestans .

A proper noun is converted into an adjective by adding -anus, -ana, or -anum after a vowel ( brookeanum ) and -ianus, -iana or -ianum after a consonant ( balfourianum ).

Exceptions. When an old generic name becomes a specific name it retains its own gender, which may be different from that of the modern generic name. Sedum rosea : The specific name was used by botanists and herbalists as the Latin name for Roseroot, Rhodiola rosea . Others: Lythrum hyssopifolia , Sisyrinchium bermudiana .

3. A large number of specific epithets are names that do not fall into the previous categories.

a.  Nouns are juxtaposed to the generic name to add a quality or attribute or a situation, real or imagined. Rhododendron has its share of these: -basis, basis; botrys, a bunch of (grapes)= Lat. racemosus; -calyx, a cup; -caspis, a shield; chlorops, a green eye; -cola, a dweller; -ides, resemblance; imperator, emperor; -meres, parts; mimetes, imitator; rex, king and many more. With a little more thought the last-named could have been called regale .

b.  Vernacular names that are indeclinable: Rhododendron bulu , Pinus mugho , Theobroma cacao (Nahuatl, language of the Aztecs).

c.  Miscellaneous: Rhododendron minus , "less," an adverb.

Infraspecific Epithets
When forms occur in the wild which differ from the typical species, generally in one main characteristic, they are placed in different categories. All of these taxa follow the same rules of nomenclature that apply to species. The chief categories are subspecies and varietas (variety). If the species and the other form are found in separate ecological areas created by distance or terrain, the other form usually is classified as a subspecies; otherwise it is a variety. Examples: R. arboreum subsp. cinnamomeum ; R. laudandum var. temoense . In diminishing order the categories are sub-varietas ( Saxifraga aizoon subvar. brevifolia ); forma ( Saxifraga sylvatica f. quercifolia ); and subforma ( Saxifraga aizoon subf. surculosa , i.e. twiggy).

The internationally recognized term for cultivated plants, usually called 'variety,' is cultivar or cv. Latin grammatical rules do not apply to a cultivar; in fact, the practice is now expressly forbidden. The formation of a name like R. 'Russellianum' (1831) is no longer accepted.


When writing a description or a diagnosis in Latin, a botanist must have a working knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, using most of the cases of the five declensions and, if verbs are used, the four conjugations. The standard reference in English is William T. Stearn, Botanical Latin , which includes basic grammar, vocabulary, Latin and Greek prefixes and suffixes, geographical names, color terms and examples of botanical writing.

Both classical Latin and Greek are deficient in words for parts of the flower, which eventually became of primary importance in classification (although the flower as such is now losing some of it). For example, the morphology of only the rose was discussed by Pliny and even that was not well-understood.

The modern meanings of such terms as bractea, calyx, corolla, pileus, pistil, stigma, stipula and velum are remote from the originals. In an epithet like brachygynum , short ovary, the second term is derived from gune , which in classical Greek simply means "woman" or "the female mate" of animals.

With some hyberbole, Karl Vossler ( The Spirit of Language in Civilization , 1932) commented: "Science castigates and enriches, conserves and accelerates, prunes and sharpens, obstructs and drives forward linguistic thought in the service of the logos, which it rapes, deprives of its naivete and enriches instead with innumerable children".

The so-called "dead" languages are vibrant in our vocabularies as classical dictionaries are thumbed not only by taxonomists changing names, but scientists, technologists and business people. Variations of Greek tele , far and Latin video , I see ( visio , action of seeing), pervade ( pervadere ) our society ( societas ).

Classical allusions in commerce are legion. Here are a few: Ajax, Apollo, Caesar (and its derivatives Jersey and Kaiser), Centaur, Chiron, Cincinnati, Cyclops . Mutual funds choose names that they hope will appeal to certain human instincts, i.e. Alpha, Aquila, Fidelity, Janus, Omega, Prudential, Sigma. Many names of rhododendron species fall into this category, as will be seen later.

Pacific Bell chose a Greek word, telesis , completion, and embroidered its meaning slightly, but pronounces it correctly. On the other hand, another firm uses Latin quaestus , profit, but pronounces it as questus , complaint, on the air.

This brings us to the subject of pronunciation, which we shall discuss in a future issue.

Theo Smid, Editor of the California Chapter Newsletter, is a linguist and former administrative officer of a laboratory that designed instruments to measure the effects of nuclear devices.