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Understanding Plant Names

Jeff Irons

Many gardeners are not comfortable with the botanical names of plants. They find Morning Glory easier to remember than Ipomoea, Lady's Slipper more evocative then Cypripedium, Dawn Redwood an easier mouthful than Metasequoia glyptostroboides. I believe that the names are disliked only because they are unfamiliar and that there are many botanical names which they use already without realising it. Some that come to mind are Clematis, Geranium and Rhododendron.

Rarely do people ask what a name means, or why it was given. Yet therein lies the key to finding them easy to remember. Many plant names refer to parts of the plant, and their meanings are relatively easy to guess. We know what foliage is - the leaves of a plant, so it does not require much effort to work out that longifolia means 'long leaves'.

Many other parts of botanical names are already familiar from other words, and by making associations we can work out their meanings. For example:

  • hetero, meaning different, is familiar from heterosexual;
  • leucos, which means white, is recalled by leukaemia;
  • osteon, bone, is familiar from osteopath;
  • sperma, meaning seed, is familiar from various medical terms using the word sperm.

So, the plant Osteospermum has a name which means 'bone seed', an allusion to the fact that its seeds are hard.


Rhododendron is a little more difficult but it can be used to illustrate how part of a botanical name can recur in a number of plants. Thus we have:

  • Rhodo-dendron
  • Rhod-anthe
  • Rhodo-hypoxis

Rhodo comes from the Greek word 'Rhodon', which means rose. In the case of Rhododendron it refers to the superficial resemblance of the terminal flower heads to a rose. In Rhodanthe and Rhodohypoxis it refers to the colour of the flowers. Dendron is the Greek word for tree; so Rhododendron means the tree with flowers which (from a distance) resemble roses.

Other plant names refer to people. If you saw the television series, Geoffrey Smith's World of Flowers you will recall that Geoffrey Smith pronounced 'camellia' with a short 'e', as in 'get', rather than with the more common long 'e'. In this he was adhering to the rule on pronunciation of plant names which have been derived from that of a person: it is, to pronounce them as closely as possible to the original name. Camellias are named for the Moravian Jesuit and pharmacist Kamel (short 'e') who wrote about the plants of the Philippines under his Latinized name of Camellus. There are many other plant names which refer to people in this way. A few examples are: Banksia (Banks), Dahlia (Dahl), forrestii (Forrest) and Celmisia. While some names refer to the person who discovered the plant or pay a compliment to a famous botanist, others have more exotic origins and a knowledge of Greek, Latin, and even mythology, is very useful. In my list of examples, for instance, Celmisios was the son of the nymph Alciope. In South Africa there is a genus of daisies called Alciope. So, when botanists discovered a related genus in Australia and New Zealand, they called it Celmisia, after Celmisios, the son of Alciope.

One day, while looking round a large garden, I overheard two visitor talking about the Cotton Easter plants. Instinctively they knew that botanical names should be pronounced as if they were spoken in English, no as classical Latin. Searching in their minds for two familiar words they had come up with cotton and Easter. What they did not know was that every vowel in a plant name has to be pronounced. So the pronunciation has to be co-to-ne-aster. Usually aster in a plant names refers to a star (think of Asterix). Here is does not. Cotoneaster comes from the Latin cotinum, meaning quince, and the suffix aster, which indicates incomplete resemblance. The name was given because some species of cotoneaster have leaves which resemble those of quince.

One of the advantages of knowing something about the meanings of plant names - and about the component parts which occur in the names of so many is that it helps us to pronounce the names correctly, something else with which many gardeners are not comfortable.

Olearia phlogopappa - white
Olearia phlogopappa - mauve
White and mauve forms of Olearia phlogopappa.
Photos: Ivan Margitta, Jeff Irons

Then there is the problem of name changes. For instance, recently many of the familiar chrysanthemums (derived from the Greek words, chrysos, gold, and anthemos, flower) have been transferred into Dendranthema and Leucanthemum. This was not done without good reason. Botanists were simply trying to devise a classification system which reflects the evolution of plants. The old Chrysanthemum family was very large and unwieldy and included many plants which had no real similarity to Chrysanthemums. Dendron, you will recall, means tree or wood, so is an obvious reference to the woody stems of plants put into Dendranthema, and the whole name means 'the flower with the woody stem'. Leucanthemum plainly contains leucos (white) and so simply means 'white flower'.

There are also names which stay the same but whose spelling is changed, for reasons which the gardener finds difficult to understand. An example is the Buddleja, named after the vicar and botanist, Adam Buddle. We are used to seeing the name written as Buddleia but the correct spelling is Buddleja. The reason is that preference should be given to the earliest name of a plant and in this case it is the spelling Buddleja, which was used by Linnaeus, who devised our system of binomial plant names.

Then there are the totally unfamiliar names. All you can do is learn their meanings individually. An example is the popular daisy bush, Olearia phlogopappa. Those with some knowledge of Latin might think that the first part is formed of Olea (the olive), Celtic scholars might think that it was named after someone called O'Leary. Both would be wrong. The genus is named after a German horticultural writer whose family name Latinized to Olearius. Phlogopappa comes from the Greek, phlogos, or flame (think of the Phlogiston theory learnt during your schooldays) and pappus from the word for grandparent. What has a flame or a grandparent got to do with a plant? The answer is that hairs on its cypselas (seeds) are supposed to resemble an old man's beard and that in its turn is supposed to have a shape similar to that of a flame. Easy, isn't it?

To help you understand the meaning of more plant names, here are some common prefixes and suffixes, together with their meanings. Suffixes can be masculine, feminine or neuter, so can have endings in -us, -a, -um, -on or -os.


  • angusti - narrow
  • brachys - short
  • caly - calyx
  • carpo - fruit
  • cyano - dark blue
  • erio - woolly
  • erythr - red
  • glauc - silvery
  • macro - large


  • ans - becoming
  • anthemon - flower
  • anthos - flower
  • carpa - fruit
  • cola - inhabitant of
  • escens - somewhat
  • idium - diminutive
  • opsis - form of, view
  • osus - abounding in

From "Native Plants for New South Wales", the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (NSW), October 1996.

At the time this article was written, Jeff Irons was the Secretary of the UK-based Australasian Plant Society, an organisation with an interest in the cultivation of plants of Australia and New Zealand. More details of the Society can be found on its website.

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