Millions of years ago when dinosaurs walked the earth, plants like ferns and redwoods and Ginkgo trees were growing amidst them. Of course they weren’t known as such – because there was no one to name them yet. Never-the-less, they existed the same as today, however anonymous.
But leave it to the “advanced” Homo sapiens who created language and then sought out to name everything in the universe. The naming of plants probably began very early in history, though it is clear that people in different parts of the world all came up with their own names for the same plant.
As the “civilized” world grew more integrated, it became a necessity to have a universal name for things in order to communicate. It was in the 1700’s that the European world –spearheaded by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus – came up with a system to name plants in Latin, first by its family name, then genus, species, and variety. The system worked and still continues today. However, the average gardener then – and now – still mainly calls plants by their common names. This can lead to much confusion in our business as one variety of plant can be known by dozens of names between regions, and even from neighbor to neighbor.
My first interest in plants came from exploring the woods on our farm every spring and becoming entranced by wildflowers. When my big sister bought me a wildflower field book, I memorized every one. It gave me a new sense of “knowing” each plant, (and I felt closer to them) just by being able to call out their names during my “botany expeditions”. I loved “re-meeting” wild Jacob’s ladder, Mayapple, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Bloodroot (COOL, I thought), Violets, and Trilliums! It was the same thrill I got during a lazy hike through Fox Island with my daughter, Jessie Voors, when I named trees and flowers for her. Of course, that was a few years ago when she still thought that she could learn a lot from her Dad!
Like Latin genus names, many flower common names have mythological origins – Iris, Narcissus, Asclepias, Heliopsis, and Hyacinth. It’s always interesting to learn the mythological story that coincides with the plant, too, and it often sheds light on why one was named after the other. Many other names tell something about the appearance of the plant – like Bleeding Heart (it’s also called Lady-in-the-Bath, try to find her by holding the flower upside down), Bellflower, Monkshood, Daylily (each flower only lasts one day), and Goats beard. Other flower names can make for some interesting guesses as to how they originated – like Hosta, Sedum, Peony (!), Scabiosa (!!), and Aster (!!!).
So next time you’re in your garden talking to your plants, ask them how they got their name; it will give you something to think about while you uproot an unwanted Dandelion (Hey, there’s a good one)!