Ever wonder how plants get those strange and unpronounceable names?


Say hello to Theophrastus.

Carolus Linnaeus

Carolus Linnaeus

Photo Credit: Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Like Dorotheanthus bellidiformis and Metasequoia glyptostroboides – why can’t we just call them by their respective common names, Livingstone daisy and dawn redwood, and be done with it?

The answers are deeply rooted (pardon the pun) in history. The ancients who studied plants eons before our Western world was explored had made vast pronouncements. The Greek botanist Theophrastus (371 – 286 BC) wrote so persuasively about plant life, that his books remained the standard volumes of botany for centuries.

Regrettably, many of his hypotheses were incorrect, in part because he had not figured out relationships among plants. His simplistic taxonomic system consisted of separating taxa into four categories: trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and herbs.

By today’s standards, early plant nomenclature and taxonomy is laughable. For example, one school of thought back in Theophrastus’ day held that the morphology, or shape, of a plant determined its usefulness. So a plant with a convoluted appearance (like cockscomb) would heal illnesses of the brain. A kidney-shaped root (such as a potato) might be useful in the treatment of renal maladies. And consuming a tree with a straight tap root should correct rickets.

You can see how some common names were derived, such as “heal-all” and “soldier’s woundweed,” among countless others.

Although the ancients were more interested in pharmaceutical and culinary properties of plants, later botanists began to see the beauty in them, and they gave plants more fanciful and descriptive common names, like lily-of-the-valley, black-eyed Susan and blue-eyed Mary. These more pleasant-sounding names are wonderful; they give us a sense of closeness to our gardens – and, hey, who knows – maybe voodoo lily can scare off a few spirits, and magic carpet will somehow fly us away to exotic pleasures. But these “English names” can also be confusing, because many different monikers often are attached to the same plant. At the same time, different plants are sometimes given similar names, even thought there may be no real relationship among them. (Tanbark-oak, poison oak, silkoak and Jerusalem oak are not even closely related – and only tanbark is a member of the oak family.)

There simply is no standard in the use of common names. And that’s where it gets tricky, especially if you’re trying to pick the right plant for your garden.

In 1753, a Swedish botanist named Carolus Linnaeus (also known as Carl von Linné) sorted it out for us. He established the “binomial system of nomenclature,” which is still used today. It is the scientific – “Latinized” – way we name and identify plants. The best part: It’s known worldwide.

Under the Linnaean system, each plant is given a binomial – two names – and both of them make up the plant’s species name. The first name of a plant is called its genus (plural is genera), and the second is its specific epithet, which describes the genus in some way – flower color, size, growth habit, leaf shape or other feature.

Together, the two names form the species (plural is species, just like the singular). And it’s the species that most accurately identifies each plant.

So now you can see why a plant known to have 15 English, 44 French, 105 German and 81 Dutch common names might easily get confused with another plant. But if you walk into a garden center and ask for Nymphaea alba, you’d get exactly what you’re looking for!

Now, if you could only pronounce it.