Learn to Speak Plant - what plant names can tell us
Posted: March 26, 2021
Categories: How To
Sometimes a plant's botanic name describes a very specific and detailed part of its structure that is only of interest to taxonomists (the people who decide what plants are called). A lot of the time, a plant's botanic name gives us very useful information about what it looks like, and behaves like, or the place it comes from. This is handy for gardeners as it can give us a guide to its appearance, preferences, and where to plant it. Even if, like most of us, you didn't do Latin or Greek at school, it's easy to pick up a few of the main words. You'll begin to recognise them after a while - and before long you'll be speaking Plant!
Enjoy discovering more as you learn to speak Plant!
Decoding the names
Starting with the basics
- flower = anthus / anthos / anthemum; and of course floraChrysanthemum = gold-flower.
Agapanthus = love-flower.
Helianthus = sun-flower (Helios was the Sun God in Greek mythology)
- leaf = phylla / phyllum / phyllus, and folia. Spathiphyllum, the peace lily = broad-sword-leaf, as the peace lily has broad sword-shaped leaves.
Lomandra longifolia has long leaves.
Calathea orbifolia has rounded, or orb-shaped, leaves; Calathea lancifolia has lance shaped leaves.
Banksia ericifolia has leaves like the Erica genus of heathers; Backhousia myrtifolia has leaves like myrtle.
What colour is it?
- white = alba / album / albo , leuco / leuca, nivea / nivalis Azalea alba magnifica is a white azalea. Leucadendron, a South African protea relative, means white-tree.
Nivea and nivalis come from the Latin word for snow, like Brachyscome nivalis, the white-flowered native snow daisy
- yellow = lutea , flava/flavum , sulphurea Think of Rosa banksiae Lutea, the yellow climbing rose; Hymenosporum flavum, the golden native frangipani; and Cosmos sulphureus, flowering a glowing shade of orange-yellow
- gold = aurea / aureum, chrys Thuja aurea nana has gold-coloured foliage which gives it the common name of golden biota.
Chrysocephalum, meaning 'gold-head' is commonly called yellow buttons; and of course chrysanthemum, the golden flower of the Japanese monarchy.
- silver = argentea / argenteum Dichondra argentea 'Silver Falls' is a popular silver trailing plant. The country of Argentina gets its name from the Latin for 'Land of Silver'
- pink = rosea , rubra/rubrum/ruber Dipladenia sanderi Rosea is a climber with pink flowers; Cordyline rubra has reddish-pink leaves.
- red = coccineaAs in Ixora coccinea Flame of the Woods, and the bright red native Banksia coccinea, scarlet banksia
- blood red = sanguinea
Rumex sanguineus is better-known as red-veined sorrel for the blood-red veins running through the leaves.
- rust red = ferrugoThe word 'ferrous' means rusty, and the chemical symbol for iron is Fe from the same word. Our native rusty bloodwood gum is Corymbia ferruginaea
- purple = purpurea, usually a dark wine-purple. Azalea purpurea Shiraz is the purple-leaved azalea.
Atropurpurea is very dark purple or black purple, so Cordyline atropurpurea has very dark wine-purple leaves.
- blue = caerulea.
The native ginger Alpinia caerulea has bright blue berries; the native blue flax lily Dianella caerulea has deep blue flowers.
Fans of The Devil Wears Prada will remember Meryl Streep's speech on the importance of cerulean as a fashion colour!
- blue-green = glauca , cyanFestuca glauca has metallic-looking blue-green grassy leaves, hence its common name of blue fescue. Eucalyptus glaucescens, the tingiringi gum, has silvery-bluish-green leaves.
Centaurea cyanus is the blue cornflower.
What size or shape is it?
- short = nana , humilis , pumila , compacta. Plants such as Nandina domestica nana and Brunfelsia compacta are smaller all round than the regular species form. Nana means dwarf in latin.
Pumila also comes from a word that also means dwarf; Ficus pumila has very small leaves in comparison to other Ficus, and is a flat, clinging vine.
Kalanchoe humilis (like humility) is a low-growing ground-covering succulent.
- creeping, lying flat = procumbens, repens, reptansAcalypha reptans 'Stephie', Dichondra repens and Ajuga repens all grow very flat to the ground; as does Fuchsia procumbens a creeping vine form of fuchsia.
- climbing = scandensThe native golden guinea vine Hibbertia scandens climbs - though it will also creep along the ground, scramble through other plants, or form itself into a hedge, it's very versatile!
- shrubby, bushy = fruticosa
Westringia fruticosa is well named and a very popular native shrub.
- shrubby, tree-like = arborescenswe get the word arboretum, a tree collection, from the same origin.
- upright = fastigiata , stricta Buxus sempervirens fastigiata is a very upright vertical form of box hedging. Bonus element here: Semper = always, as in the Marines' motto 'Semper Fidelis', always faithful. Virens = green, like the artist paint colour viridian, so this plant's name Buxus sempervirens fastigiata means box-ever-green-upright. Very informative!
What kind of leaves or flowers does it have?
- large = macro , grandiMagnolia grandiflora is the magnolia with big flowers.
Hydrangea macrophylla is the hydrangea with big leaves
- small = micro , parviYou can probably work out by now that Buxus microphylla is the box hedge with small leaves, micro-phylla
- edible = edulis, oleracea, sativa Carpobrotus edulis, the pigface, is a bushtucker food. Brassica oleracea is the garden cabbage family. Pisum sativum is the garden pea.
- double/full = plena / pleno Serissa Flore Pleno has small white double flowers
- scented = odorata , fragrans , foetidaOsmanthus fragrans, the tea olive, has blossoms which smell of peach yogurt.
Viola odorata - sweet violet - is world famous for its fragrant flowers for perfumes; Viburnum odoratissimum means the most-fragrant viburnum, according to its name.
Foetida is reserved for plants which don't smell quite so nice - though Serissa foetida is perfectly pleasant!
- shiny= nitidusThe glossy light-reflecting leaves of the bird's nest fern Asplenium nitidus give it its botanic name
- hairy = hirsuta , villosa , pubescensPultenaea villosa is known as the hairy bush pea. No sniggering at the back.
- woolly = lanata Stachys lanata, the lamb's ear, has soft velvety leaves covered in fine silver hairs. Lanolin, an oil that comes from sheep's fleece, means wool-oil.
- soft = mollisAcanthus mollis is the soft-leaf acanthus; as you can imagine, its relative Acanthus spinosus has much spinier leaves.
- like a = oides, opsisPandorea jasminoides is the pandorea like-a-jasmine. Dietes iridioides is the dietes like-an-iris. Cupaniopsis anacardioides is the tuckeroo like-a-cashew (Anacardium). Coreopsis, which means 'like a bedbug or tick' refers to the shape of the seed, thankfully, and not the flower!
Where does it come from?
- amazonica = the Amazon region of South America. You guessed that, right? Alocasia amazonica is a very popular indoor plant that enjoys humid tropical conditions.
- japonica = Japan Another easy one to guess! Camellia japonica originates in that region, as does Chaenomeles japonica, the ornamental quince.
- sinensis = ChinaCamellia sinensis originates here, and is the plant origin of every cuppa we drink! Somewhat more obviously, plants with chinensis or chinense in the name - such as Loropetalum chinense rubrum 'China Pink' - also come from China.
- formosa = an old name for Taiwan. Several unusual bulb flowers like the beautiful orchid Pleione formosa bear this species name.
- maritima = maritime regions, the seaside. Armeria maritima is sea thrift, and you'll find them in the wild clinging to cliffs along the coast.
- littoralis = this means shoreline, of seas and riversThese plants often don't mind occasional wet feet or salty soils, like Hymenocallis littoralis, the spider lily.
- officinalis = not official, but medicinal. Plants with this name - like ginger, Zingiber officinale, rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, and peony, Paeonia officinalis - are often found in very old botanic gardens and monasteries, where they were used as medicinal plants by healers and herbalists.
Enjoy discovering more as you learn to speak Plant!